Commissioner Moran the harshest critic of past county staff actions leading to April 10 discussion
Sarasota County commissioners again have vented frustration over a loss of about $1.5 million in selling residential property in Englewood that the Englewood Community Redevelopment Area (CRA) purchased in 2007 with plans for creating a park.
During their regular meeting on April 10, the board members ultimately voted 5-0 to accept staff’s recommendation to approve the sale of the parcel at 800 W. Perry St. in Englewood to Kent D. Belden and Bonnie Kelsey Quinn for $726,000.
The commission agreed to a backup plan in the motion by Commissioner Charles Hines, however, that will enable staff to conclude the sale to the Irrevocable Trust of William J. Collier for $700,100 if the Belden/Quinn deal fails to close.
Commissioner Michael Moran had the sharpest words for staff failings that led to the April 10 vote, though he acknowledged twice that Cheri Ivarsson of the county’s Real Estate Services Division — who handled the staff presentation on April 10 — was not a county employee during most of the property’s history as a county holding.
Addressing County Administrator Jonathan Lewis, Moran said, “I know you weren’t here … but I hope you have … great concern [about] whoever had fingerprints on this, all the way back; anybody that’s still in this building that had fingerprints on this.”
Moran asked Ivarsson why Lin Kurant’s name was on the Belden/Quinn contract included in the board’s packet for the meeting.
Ivarsson explained that Kurant still was manager of the Real Estate Services Division when the commission agreed in early December 2017 to have staff advertise the property for sale with a broker for another 90 days at $550,000. Since then, Ivarsson added, Kurant has retired.
Commissioner Moran’s points are valid,” Hines said after making the motion. “When it comes to the management of our county properties … the way it’s been done in the past is at least not acceptable to this commissioner.
“I have expressed to two county administrators now my concern with how we handle our real estate,” Hines added. “We’re one of the biggest owners of real estate in the county. I think we’re seeing now a much, much more energized action/reaction/sale of surplus properties.”
Path to this point
During her presentation, Ivarsson reiterated details about the history of the 800 W. Perry St. property that she had discussed during the board’s meeting on Dec. 12, 2017.
The Englewood CRA bought the parcel in 2007 to use it as parkland, Ivarsson said. However, “Neighborhood concerns and lack of funding” precluded that development, she continued. Therefore, staff leased the parcel.
In 2016, she added, the county held a live auction for the property, but the highest bid was $450,000.
In January 2017, the county marketed the property on its webpage for surplus lands and through “local advertising,” according to Ivarsson’s PowerPoint presentation. The minimum price set was $850,000. Subsequently, that was lowered to $750,000. The only offer the county received was lower than the minimum.
Then in October 2017, staff listed the property with Keller Williams Realty Gold, she continued, with a minimum price of $750,000. Again, the solitary offer was below that level.
On Dec. 12, 2017, the commission directed staff to reduce the minimum price to $550,000 and to list the property with Keller Williams Realty Gold for another 90 days, she said.
Eight bids were received, Ivarsson pointed out.
After she completed her comments, Moran told her, “I’m not directing this totally at you [but] I want to slow this way down. … This has been going on over 10 years.”
When he asked her how much the county would lose on the sale, if the Belden/Quinn deal closes, Ivarsson replied that the county bought the property for $2,195,000, and the Belden/Quinn offer is $726,000.
“What’s more concerning to me than the loss of money on this,” Moran told her, “is how this went down.”
He first referenced the neighborhood objection to the park. He was uncertain whether residents had been polled on that proposal before the Englewood CRA bought the land, and county staff just ignored the residents’ views, he said, or whether residents did not learn of the park plan until 2009.
Regardless of what transpired, he continued, “we decided we had made a mistake,” which led to the leasing of the property. “It took another year to actually lease it,” Moran noted, and then “for whatever reason, we had no oversight of this property for four years.”
In 2014, Moran said, staff was “notified that we had a bad tenant in there. Three months later, you guys do a site visit and realize that [the tenant] basically ruined the property.”
“I believe that the property was not maintained well,” Ivarsson responded, though she added she was uncertain about what had happened.
County Administrator Lewis interjected then that Ivarsson has been on staff only three to four years. “She wasn’t here during that time period,” he stressed.
“I think we will make a note that Ms. Ivarsson was not here for all of this past history; neither were some of us,” Chair Nancy Detert noted.
“Was it unlivable [as a result of the tenant’s actions]?” Moran asked Ivarsson.
“I don’t know if it was unlivable or not,” she replied.
The deals before them
Moran also asked whether the people who made the top two offers for the property have the right to investigate it.
“They have waived the contingencies,” Ivarsson told him.
Belden and Quinn wrote in at the end of their proposed contract that they would take the property “as is,” she said. The representative of the Collier Trust crossed out the line referring to the right to investigate the parcel, she added.
Moran asked her whether county staff is taking steps to file a lawsuit over damage to the property while it was under lease.
“To my knowledge,” Ivarsson responded, “there’s been no conversation concerning any lawsuit.”
“It doesn’t make anybody happy,” Detert said of the loss of money. Yet, she continued, “Frankly, $726,000 is headed in the right direction, and the fact that it took years shows that there weren’t a whole lot of people lined up to buy this property.”
Then Detert asked for a motion.
After a few moments passed, Hines made the motion to approve the staff recommendations for the Belden/Quinn offer and the backup on the offer with the Collier trust.
“We don’t happily make this motion,” Hines said of the delay before he spoke up. “These people are getting a phenomenal deal. … That is today’s market. … It’s saddening, but we need to sell these [surplus] properties.”
The commissioners have pressed County Administrator Lewis to propose for sale any property staff believes the county will not need in the future, so it can generate revenue for county operations in future budgets.
“We absolutely took a beating on this,” said Commissioner Alan Maio, who seconded the motion. “None of us were here when a lot of these decisions were made,” he added, referring to the history of the Englewood parcel.
Moran said he would support the motion “with deep reservation …”
As far as he was concerned, Moran added, the 800 W. Perry St. property represented the worst example he had seen of the county’s putting private property in public hands. “We’d better be clear [on] what the mission is in owning [a] piece of property.”
“We really have no choice,” Detert said of the recommended sale. “This is dead money,” she added of the county’s ownership of the parcel. “Government has a history of buying high and selling low. Hopefully, those days are over.”
Having had a real estate license for 14 years and having owned a mortgage company for25 years, Detert continued, “I understand that some of the bumpy road of this deal” was founded in the “real estate depression” in past years.
“Hopefully, administration has made adjustments so this type of conversation won’t have to be held again.”