County board agrees to put on hold extension of interlocal agreement with the city on the Marian Anderson Place brownfield site until after city-county staff discussions have been held
Call it a creative counter-proposal from County Commissioner Charles Hines.
The Sarasota County Commission has asked Interim County Administrator Jonathan Lewis to talk with City of Sarasota staff about a parking lot trade and the county’s willingness to create an affordable housing development in Newtown. If city leaders are not interested, county commissioners indicated, then they might not approve a city-sought, five-year extension of an interlocal agreement regarding county funding for the city-owned Marian Anderson Place brownfield site in Newtown.
On Dec. 12, the county board voted to continue until Jan. 30, 2018 a decision on the interlocal agreement, but it directed staff to keep unspent the remaining $432,127 of $500,000 the county initially committed to remediation of environmental contamination at Marian Anderson Place.
A letter from City Manger Tom Barwin to former County Administrator Tom Harmer prompted the County Commission discussion, which focused on resolving the approximately 20-month-long dispute over county funding for the Downtown Sarasota Community Redevelopment Area (CRA) Trust Fund. On Jan. 30, Lewis also is to report to his board about the results of his discussions with city staff.
When The Sarasota News Leader attempted to reach Barwin for comments regarding the commission’s proposals, the News Leader learned that he is out of the office until after the holidays. His executive assistant, Kathy King, also told the News Leader on Dec. 12 that Deputy City Manager Marlon Brown declined any comment, as Brown had not heard the County Commission discussion and, therefore, knew none of the details.
In his Nov. 20 letter to Harmer, Barwin wrote that the May 22, 2012 interlocal agreement between the city and the county regarding redevelopment of the 13-acre Anderson property, located on the city/county border in Newtown, is set to expire on Dec. 31. “While the city has made good progress on remediating environmental concerns on the site,” Barwin pointed out, “final negotiations with a redevelopment team selected through a recent invitation to negotiate (ITN) process will not likely be completed until mid-2018.”
Barwin added that because of the “special circumstances and opportunities for economic gain and job creation potential in North Sarasota,” the city staff was “respectfully requesting” that the interlocal agreement be extended for a second five-year period, through Dec. 31, 2022.
“I probably don’t see any reason why we should not extend [the agreement],” Commissioner Alan Maio responded.
“I agree with Commissioner Maio: This should be extended,” Hines said. “But, maybe not today.”
The lingering differences of opinion
Before offering his suggestions on Dec. 12, Hines explained that his goal was to try to resolve the CRA dispute in a positive way.
In April 2016, city staff provided documentation that it said clearly supported its view that the county owed one final payment into the Downtown Sarasota CRA Trust Fund. However, with passage of its 2016 fiscal year budget, the County Commission had reiterated its position that the CRA agreement would end in 2016, as the CRA was created in 1986 for a period of 30 years.
On April 26, the City and County commissions held a joint meeting to discuss the issue. At that time, Deputy County Attorney Frederick “Rick” Elbrecht presented county documentation that he said gave the Office of the County Attorney confidence that if the dispute were to end up in court, the county would prevail and the city could end up having to pay the county’s legal fees as well as its own. Elbrecht estimated the total could be close to $800,000.
Since then, the City Commission has authorized Barwin to take a variety of steps to try to gain some form of financial settlement with the county. In August, the City Commission approved a proposal that the county pay the city $2.6 million, or about half of what Barwin says the county owes the city for the final CRA payment, with interest accrued: $5.3 million.
In an earlier letter — dated June 20 — Barwin had offered a list of proposals, approved by the City Commission. Those included the request for extending the interlocal agreement regarding the Anderson site. The list also contained the city’s offer to create a pocket park with 50 public parking spaces on the former Ringling Boulevard site of the Sarasota Police Department, next to the Silvertooth Judicial Center.
The city’s conveyance of that land to the county was one facet of a 2003 Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the city and the county, in exchange for a county promise not to relocate its administrative offices and the courts from downtown Sarasota. However, City Attorney Robert Fournier says the county never lived up to all of its promises in the MOU, so the city should not be obligated to convey the property to the county.
Then-County Administrator Harmer replied to Barwin in a July 5 letter, saying that the improvements to the parcel would be welcome, but “[the city and county] should work toward the ultimate transfer of the property, as originally intended.”
Commissioner Hines, especially, has voiced frustration in recent months about the city’s refusal to turn over that Ringling Boulevard land to the county.
Facets of a proposal
On Dec. 12, Hines pointed out that the interlocal agreement on the Anderson site “was basically a promise between the county administration and the city administration” that was put into writing.
“We also had an agreement between the county and the city in regards to the police station property,” Hines continued. “They said that they would turn it over to us,” but it remains in city ownership.
Then Hines talked about the county board members’ Nov. 28 decision to direct the staff to market county-owned property located on Main Street in downtown Sarasota. The vacant lot at 20 N. Washington Blvd. has provided parking spaces primarily for residents who need to transact business at the offices of the Sarasota County Clerk of the Circuit Court and County Comptroller, as county staff has pointed out.
During the Nov. 28 discussion, Interim County Administrator Lewis and Deputy County Administrator Steve Botelho estimated the county could receive close to $4 million for the land, if the board removed restrictions on any sale that would require the buyer to replace the lost on-site parking.
Since that discussion, Hines continued on Dec. 12, Clerk of Court Karen Rushing has expressed concern about the difficulties she foresees for her staff and her constituents if they no longer can park on the 20 N. Washington Blvd. property.
Hines pointed out that he knew City Manager Barwin had sent County Administration tentative concepts for the former Police Department site. Therefore, Hines suggested that if the city wants the county board to extend the interlocal agreement on the Anderson property, the city should sign over to the county the deed for the Ringling Boulevard land. The county will agree to restrict use of the property to government purposes, Hines said. Then parking spaces on that site could replace the ones on the Washington Boulevard property, and the county could reap the proceeds from selling the latter.
Furthermore, Hines pointed out, during that Nov. 28 budget workshop, the commissioners declined to take the $1.4 million out of their account for its Community Reinvestment Program (CRP) to help plug a budget gap.
The County Commission revived the CRP in the 2016 fiscal year in lieu of continuing participation in the Downtown Sarasota CRA. The CRP was designed to enable municipalities in the county — and county departments — to win funding for infrastructure that would boost the economy.
“We’ve said over and over and over [to City of Sarasota leaders]: Apply for that,” Hines added of the CRP money. “We want projects to be funded.”
One reason for the revival of the CRP, he noted, was to ensure money went to actual development and not to administrative costs. County board members complained in 2015 about money in the Downtown Sarasota CRA Trust Fund going toward overhead and other city expenses that they did not consider appropriate.
The County Commission has stood fast this year, Hines continued, on the belief that it does not owe the City of Sarasota one more payment into the CRA Trust Fund. Yet, he said, if city leaders are agreeable to the transfer of the Police Department property to the county, and the County Commission extends the Marion Anderson Brownfield interlocal agreement, both local governments will benefit.
Another piece of the puzzle
“Now go one more step,” Hines told his colleagues. “We have a very, very large piece of property” — comprising about 115 acres — next to the North Sarasota Library in Newtown. It also is adjacent to Newtown Estates Park, which has athletic fields, he noted.
Several years ago, Hines pointed out, the County Commission envisioned that property as home to a major athletic complex for North Sarasota. However, Hines added, the county does not have the money “to develop a huge, massive regional park.” Moreover, in recent years, he said, the county has put a lot of money into expanding Nathan Benderson Park, along with providing upgrades at its BMX complex on 17th Street in Sarasota and North Water Tower Park in North Sarasota.
On the other hand, Hines continued, “We have affordable housing issues. … We have been stomping our feet about affordable housing issues.”
The board could direct staff to divide that large Newtown parcel, so half of it could be offered to a developer willing to build affordable housing units, he said. The city wants to see commercial uses on the Anderson site, he added, so it would work well to have affordable housing close to those businesses.
Hines proposed that the commission ask Interim County Administrator Lewis to talk with City Manager Barwin about all those proposals. “To me, that would be the start to resolve the CRA issue in a positive way … and this whole CRA thing can just go away.”
“I thought that was an incredibly fair and thoughtful summary,” Commissioner Michael Moran told Hines.
He would like more details about the city’s plans for the Anderson site, however, Moran said, before settling on how best to proceed on the city’s request to extend the interlocal agreement.
“I would be for not voting on this today and supporting Commissioner Hines’ ideas,” Commissioner Nancy Detert responded. “Let’s try to look at the whole puzzle at one time and then coordinate the pieces.”
Nonetheless, she added of the city and county commissioners, “I think we both have the same vision and the same goals.”
“I think that what was laid out there is very lucid and logical,”
Chair Paul Caragiulo said. “I think it’s really where we can go, long-term.”
“I like the comprehensive way Commissioner Hines wants to do this,” Commissioner Alan Maio told his colleagues. Still, he said, “I’d like to reserve my opinion on each step.”
Hines asked Lewis how much time he would need to address the proposals with Barwin.
Lewis pointed out that the County Commission is scheduled to hold its next budget workshop on Jan. 30, 2018. He added that he should have sufficient time before then to work with city staff.
Hines then made the motion to continue the Anderson Brownfield Site interlocal agreement extension discussion until Jan. 30 and instruct Lewis to meet with city staff about the suggestions Hines had offered.
Moran seconded the motion and won consensus that the remaining $432,127 the county has set aside for the Anderson property remain untouched until after the discussions with city staff have been concluded.
The motion passed unanimously.