One county commissioner suggests the City of North Port just go ahead and pay for the property or provide a line of credit for it to conclude the deal
By Rachel Brown Hackney
Sarasota County Commissioner Joe Barbetta was succinct this week in his recommendation for ending the latest round of bargaining over Warm Mineral Springs.
“To me, it’s real simple,” he said on Aug. 20: “A 2.75 million check plus costs that we agreed upon prior to Sept. 1 or an irrevocable line of credit callable in 30 days.” That would conclude the sale of the 81-acre property to the City of North Port and prevent the Springs from closing once again.
A short-term management agreement the County and City commissions approved earlier this year with National and State Park Concessions will expire on Aug. 31.
Just before the conclusion of the County Commission’s Aug. 20 budget workshop, County Administrator Tom Harmer reported that county staff had remained in communication with City of North Port staff while the County Commission was on its summer break. He noted that County Commission Chairman Charles Hines sent a letter to the city on July 23, saying the county board would be prepared to consider a sales contract when it returned from its recess.
Late on Aug. 18, Harmer continued, North Port provided a proposed contract to the Office of the County Attorney for review. Harmer added that he hoped to get it back to the city with comments by Aug. 21 at the latest. “If we can quickly reach a general agreement,” Harmer pointed out, City Manager Jonathan Lewis plans to call a special meeting of the City Commission to consider the document.
In the meantime, Harmer continued, city and county staff members are working on the necessary procedures related to the pending closing of the facility at the end of the day on Aug. 31.
Vice Chairwoman Christine Robinson noted that in the latest round of discussions, the city had renewed a plea from the past — that the county allow it to work with National and State Park Concessions to keep the Springs open until the sale is finalized.
County commissioners have explained numerous times in the past that state law does not allow a county to enter into such contract negotiations, she added. Competitive solicitations are necessary.
The two local government entities are equal partners in the property they purchased for $5.5 million in late 2010. After failure this summer to reach agreement over a long-term management proposal for the Springs, the city proposed purchasing the attraction from the county.
“The county could not be a party to a continuation of the existing management contract,” County Attorney Stephen DeMarsh affirmed. However, he said, the county could lease its interest in the Springs to the city and then the city could do whatever it wished.
Such action “has statutory authority as an independent way to deal with this,” DeMarsh added.
When Robinson asked how long he thought it would take to close on a lease, DeMarsh responded with an estimate of 30 days.
“I can tell you that I won’t support any of that,” Barbetta said. “I will not enter into any more agreements with [the North Port commissioners].”
As for the sale, he continued, “I’ve been told they have the cash on hand. … They have 10, 11 days to come up with the check or irrevocable line of credit. Otherwise, the Springs shut down, as far as I’m concerned.”
When Chairman Hines asked whether county and city staff members had settled up on all the financial matters regarding the property, Harmer said a “true-up” will be needed at the closing.
(Hines referenced the latest revenue report for the Springs, but County Parks and Recreation Department Director Carolyn Brown updated that on Aug. 21, noting that as of that date, the total revenue since the attraction reopened in April was $500,814.)
DeMarsh told the board he would prefer the “truing-up” prior to the closing.
Harmer concurred with DeMarsh that the City of North Port owes money to the county for some of the latter’s expenditures at the site.
“Can you bring us a contract on Tuesday to vote on?” Commissioner Nora Patterson asked. (The board has regular meetings set for Tuesday, Aug. 26, and Wednesday, Aug. 27.)
Harmer and DeMarsh replied that the City Commission needs to approve the contract before presenting it to the County Commission.
However, Robinson asked whether the county board could take action that simply would enable Hines to sign the contract after the North Port Commission approves it. DeMarsh told her his staff “could come up with some delegated authorities,” adding, “A lot’s going to happen in the next day or so.”
“I think between now and Tuesday, a lot will be fleshed out,” Harmer said.
Patterson pointed out that she just wants to expedite the process.
“Start off with the check, Steve. Just deliver the check,” Barbetta said with a wry chuckle.