Top city, county staff to meet on April 11 as first step in trying to resolve CRA payment dispute

Joint session of the City and County commissions planned as a follow-up on April 26

The County Commission sits in session on Jan. 25. File photo

Top staff of the City and County of Sarasota are scheduled to have their first formal meeting on Tuesday, April 11, in an effort to resolve their boards’ disparate views regarding the timing of the county’s final payment into the Downtown Sarasota Community Redevelopment Area (CRA) Trust Fund.

The session is expected to be the first called for under state guidelines for resolution of conflicts between local government bodies. According to the meeting notice — sent out by city staff — the session “will include an assessment of the conflict over [the] final payment from the perspective of each local governmental entity.”

City Manager Tom Barwin, City Attorney Robert Fournier, County Administrator Tom Harmer and County Attorney Stephen DeMarsh will be among the participants in the April 11 meeting, Harmer told the County Commission on March 29.

The meeting is scheduled to begin at 8 a.m. and end at noon in the City Commission Chambers at City Hall, which is located at 1565 First St. in downtown Sarasota.

County Administrator Tom Harmer. File photo

The public notice says, “If a tentative resolution to the conflict over the final payment can be agreed upon by the City and County representatives at the conflict assessment meeting, the participants may proceed with whatever steps they deem appropriate to fully resolve the conflict, including, but not limited to, the scheduling of additional meetings for informal discussions or proposing a resolution to the City Commission and to the County Commission.”

Thus far, each board has shown no willingness to give ground on the issue.

Harmer also told the County Commission last week that city staff wanted to go ahead and schedule a joint session of the two commissions. That is the second step provided for in the state statute whose guidelines the City Commission is pursuing, Harmer added.

“We’ve been advised that there is really only one date” for that meeting, Harmer continued: April 26. The County Commission has a regularly scheduled meeting that day in Sarasota, Harmer noted, so the joint session has been proposed to begin at 6 p.m.

DeMarsh asked the board members on March 29 whether that date would work for them.

The joint meeting has to occur within 50 days of the county’s receipt of the city’s letter initiating the conflict resolution process, Harmer pointed out, and that date is May 2.

“What are we thinking here?” Chair Paul Caragiulo asked his colleagues.

“I’m fine [with April 26],” Commissioner Charles Hines responded, pointing out that the lack of flexibility with dates is a result of the City Commission’s refusal to accept the county’s offer to work outside the state guidelines to resolve the conflict.

Then Caragiulo raised the matter of a “major rezoning issue” that the County Commission is scheduled to address on April 26.

“We are looking into that,” Harmer replied.

“It is what it is,” Hines said. “I’m OK with [the meeting date],” he reiterated his earlier remark. “We’ll get there when we get there.”

City Manager Tom Barwin. File photo

In response to a Sarasota News Leader question about Caragiulo’s comment regarding his board’s April 26 agenda, county spokesman Jason Bartolone wrote in an April 3 email, “We have two public hearings currently scheduled for the afternoon session of April 26: One regarding extending the temporary moratorium on tower installations,” while the other will focus on a Water and Navigation Control Authority major work permit application. “The agenda is of course tentative until it is finalized and published April 20,” he added. “Staff will work to refrain from scheduling additional items if possible so that the board will have a break between meetings and to allow for the venue change.”

During the April 3 regular meeting of the City Commission, that board voted unanimously to approve pushing back the start of the April 26 meeting from 5 p.m. to 6 p.m. Deputy City Manager Marlon Brown noted only that city staff had made the adjustment on the board members’ calendars.

In a September 2015 vote, the County Commission formally approved the dissolution of its participation in the Downtown Sarasota CRA, a move that appeared to take city staff and the City Commission by surprise.

City finance staff has produced documentation supporting its view that the county owes one more payment of about $5 million into the trust fund, given accrued interest, while county staff has provided city staff with materials it asserts show the final payment was to be made in 2015.

On Sept. 6, 2016, City Attorney Robert Fournier initiated discussions with the City Commission about the state’s guidelines for conflict resolution between local government bodies. However, it was not until March 6 that the City Commission set the process in motion, voting unanimously to pursue the steps provided for in the Florida Statutes. Commissioners pointed out that informal discussions City Manager Tom Barwin had had with Harmer had not proven fruitful.

Fournier also had explained on March 6 that if the city board members agreed to the county proposal to work outside the state guidelines, and they could not achieve a satisfactory resolution, they would not be able to revert to the process outlined in the statutes.