Three remaining Sarasota City Commission candidates find much to agree on in answering Tiger Bay Club moderator’s questions

Ahearn-Koch, Lobeck and Trice to be on Nov. 8 General Election ballot, with two at-large seats to fill

The three remaining candidates for two at-large seats on the Sarasota City Commission discussed issues facing the city at a recent meeting of the Sarasota Tiger Bay Club, held at Michael’s on East. Incumbent Jen Ahearn-Koch, whose term is expiring, and Dan Lobeck and Debbie Trice received the highest number of votes in the August Primary and will compete in the November General Election. Ranked voting is the prescribed method in the City Charter for commission elections.

Former County Commissioner Jon Thaxton, in his role as vice chair of the Tiger Bay Club, introduced the candidates and the topics. Overall Ahearn-Koch, Lobeck and Trice shared wide agreement on the issues, but differences of opinion on the details.

Partnership agreement for the SPAC

The first question posed by Thaxton asked how the candidates regard the partnership agreement that the City Commission recently entered into with the Sarasota Performing Arts Center Foundation for the planning, financing, design and construction of a new facility (SPAC) to be constructed on The Bay, a 53-acre park being developed on the waterfront.

Trice is concerned that there was “not enough information to make a reasoned decision,” particularly regarding operational plans. Specifics she cited include whether there will be a lease agreement, who will provide maintenance and what will be the financial responsibilities of the parties. Also, she has heard residents say they do not want Sarasota to become another Miami, i.e., a regional, national and international cultural destination, a view she shares.

Lobeck has “vigorous opposition to this very poorly worded contract that was approved on a 3-2 vote . . . and will do everything in [his] power to help the city get out of that agreement.” He said, “[I]f there is to be . . . a new performing arts center, it needs to go to a vote of the people” on a general obligation bond referendum. Lobeck added that it is necessary to have a second agreement between the Foundation and the City Commission. He considers it critical to preserve the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall on the bayfront.

Further, Lobeck wants all donations promised by the Foundation “upfront,” and, if the goal is not met, then “back to the drawing board.”

Ahearn-Koch voted against the agreement “because we did not have the details and the necessary financial information to move forward with the contract that was presented to us.” She stated that the next step is an implementation agreement, which she expects to include the details regarding cost, what the city will be paying for and the source of funding.

All three candidates expressed support for the arts.

City tax rate

Noting that the city commissioners voted to reduce the tax millage rate for the 2023 fiscal year to avoid an increase as the result of rising property values, Thaxton asked the candidates if they agreed with this action and also to state their tax philosophy.

Lobeck responded that he “supports the vote, but thinks taxes could have been reduced more.” He described himself as a “fiscal conservative” who would look for “every way possible to maximize putting money back in people’s pockets.”

The budget and tax rate motion was introduced by Ahearn-Koch, who supported both measures based on the strong recommendation from the city manager and staff. She noted that crafting the budget is a year-long process. By the time it reaches the commission, it has been “picked through and looked through.” She stated that budget decisions are made based on the concerns, issues and comments and outreach expressed by residents who want clean streets, speeding controls, more trees and other services. Ahearn-Koch added, “It’s your money and we’re spending it the way you tell us to spend it.”

“The decision-making really is at the budget process level,” said Trice. Once that has been determined, “Everything else is just a math calculation. The appraised value of all this property . . . is a set number, and you divide the budget by the appraised value and you come up with a millage rate.” If that rate is thought not to be a good number, she added, then the commissioners really need to go back and review the budget.

Comprehensive Plan amendment on affordable housing

Thaxton asked the candidates for their views on a proposed Comprehensive Plan amendment that was passed by the City Commission in May and forwarded to the state Department of Economic Opportunity for review. It will return to the commission for a final vote, currently scheduled for Nov. 7. (See the related article in this issue.)

Thaxton noted the amendment will result in “significant changes to the development approval process, affordable housing . . . and increased densities in commercial areas.” He later stated that the passage requires a supermajority vote of the City Commission: Four of the five board members would have to approve it for it to be implemented.

Ahearn-Koch voted against the amendment, although not necessarily “the idea of what is being floated.” She is opposed to the speed with which it was brought to the commission, she said, with “not enough thought and not enough input from the citizens, from the community.”

She added, “It impacts, according to the staff’s report, 1,448 parcels . . . along the corridor of the North Trail, the South Trail, Fruitville Road and [U.S.] 301. Each parcel is contiguous to another parcel, and if you look at the map, the vast majority of those parcels are single-family, low density or very low density.” She went on to say, “If this passes . . . everything within 500 feet will have no ability to have citizen input in whatever is being proposed. … This will take away … the citizens’ voice on a vast majority of our city, and I am adamantly against it.”

Trice pointed out that Ahearn-Koch was referring to two parts of the amendment, which has “so many pieces we don’t really have a picture how these pieces will fit together.”

Trice noted that Lobeck recruited 20 people to speak at the May 16 commission meeting, urging the board members to remove the proposed height bonuses for buildings, while she covered other issues of concern contained in the very long document that staff had crafted. She suggested the need to educate the commissioners, the city Planning Board members and the public on the overall plan.

Lobeck, who described himself as a refugee from Fort Lauderdale who appreciates the charm of Sarasota, opposes the amendment as being likely to change the ambiance of the city. In particular, he strongly disagrees with city Planning Director Steve Cover’s vision for Sarasota, which Lobeck interprets as a plan to create another Miami.

Additionally, Lobeck is against a provision that would “take away your right to go to public hearings and have your elected officials or their Planning Board decide the future of major developments in the city.” He said it is wrong to have these decisions made behind the scenes by administrative review.

Other topics

All three candidates stated opposition to the affordable housing provision in the proposed new Comprehensive Plan Amendment as being a give-away to developers in the form of density bonuses.

Ahearn-Koch cited Miami as having an effective affordable housing plan that could be used in Sarasota. She traced a portion of the city’s problem to short-term rentals and “hotel houses” replacing small homes, which reduces the properties that otherwise would be available at reasonable rates.

Trice proposed having an entity, such as a nonprofit organization, hold land in a trust and then sell or rent the dwelling units. An owned home would have to be sold back to the trust and would remain affordable in perpetuity.

Lobeck said affordable housing is his No. 1 issue. He added that the Rosemary District contained affordable housing prior to a zoning change that brought in developers and higher prices.

Historic preservation is one issue that all three candidates support.

Ahearn-Koch was instrumental in tightening the standards and believes they can be further tightened and clarified, with the goal of preserving more buildings. Trice, who went to MIT with the intention of becoming an architect, agrees that older buildings can be saved through restoration and repurposing. Lobeck sees historic preservation as a way to maintain Sarasota’s charm.

In action that is not common with such forums, the candidates did take the opportunity to compliment each other for the efforts each has taken on various city issues.

More information on the candidates’ backgrounds and position statements can be found on the following websites:

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