With unanimous City Commission vote, resolution nears on years-old Downtown Sarasota CRA conflict with County Commission

Interlocal agreements to provide details of use of funding from county for several projects

A graphic shows the Downtown Sarasota Community Redevelopment Area. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

In September 2015, as the Sarasota County Commission approved its budget for the next fiscal year, it formally voted to end its involvement in the work of the Downtown Sarasota Community Redevelopment Area (CRA). Commissioners concurred with staff that that the CRA was established in 1986 for 30 years, and that period was coming to an end.

City of Sarasota staff took exception to that view. During a regular City Commission meeting on Sept. 6, 2016, City Attorney Robert Fournier said he felt the city board and staff “could make a credible case” that Sarasota County owed the city one final payment into that CRA’s trust fund.

As months went by, city commissioners pursued a conflict resolution process outlined in the state statutes. Under those guidelines, they met with their county counterparts in late April 2017 to try to resolve the issues. Instead of an improved situation, however, county commissioners figuratively dug in their heels, with Commissioner Michael Moran saying at one point, “I don’t think the city is owed a penny on this, not a penny.” Moran told the city leaders during that April 26, 2017 joint meeting of the commissions, “I don’t think you deserve a Snickers bar on this.”

After then-County Administrator Tom Harmer announced in July 2017 that he planned to resign so he could become the new manager of the Town of Longboat Key, city staff began negotiating with incoming County Administrator Jonathan Lewis. Discussions then became more productive, City Manager Tom Barwin indicated in remarks to the City Commission during its regular meeting on Sept. 17.

As a result, Barwin said, he believed the “pretty serious dispute” with the county had been resolved.

The City Commission sits in session on Sept. 17. News Leader photo

Although interlocal agreements will lay out the details later, the City Commission voted unanimously on Sept. 17 to approve the four concepts city and county staff members had decided on to end the CRA conflict.

With interest counted, city staff had calculated that the county owed the city more than $5 million for the last CRA payment, Barwin said. The proposal before the city board added up to $2,632,126.13.

The County Commission has included the funding in its 2019 fiscal year budget, Barwin noted, which passed upon first reading last week. (The final county budget public hearing is set for Sept. 27 in Venice.)

As outlined in a May 1 memo from County Administrator Lewis to his board members, the concepts are as follows:

  • The county would contribute $1 million for an affordable housing development. “The City has 25 lots that could be utilized for [such a project],” Lewis noted. The city also would contribute $500,000 to the fund, Lewis added. The project would be managed by the Office of Housing and Community Development, which serves both local government jurisdictions.

The county contribution would come out of the Community Reinvestment Program (CRP) account.

  • The county would give the city $1 million for the emergency beach renourishment project the city plans to undertake on South Lido Key Beach after sea turtle nesting season ends in the fall. (See the related story in this issue.) That money would come out of Tourist Development Tax revenue set aside for county beach renourishment projects.
  • The county and the city would extend an agreement, which expired in December 2017, for the county to provide $432,126.13 to assist with the remediation and rehabilitation of the Marian Anderson Brownfield Site in North Sarasota. The two local governments forged an interlocal agreement in 2004 regarding the cleanup of the property, with the county committing $500,000. However, the city ended up spending only $67,873.87. Under the new agreement, Lewis noted in his May 1 memo, the county would provide the rest of the money to the city in the 2019 fiscal year, which will begin on Oct. 1.
These are the statements of principles regarding the affordable housing initiative and the Marion Anderson Place Brownfield Site. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

The city has been working on development of the site, “with an emphasis on increasing the tax base and job creation” in North Sarasota, Lewis wrote in his memo.

  • The city and the county would split the $400,000 estimated expense of creating a surface parking lot on the site of the former Sarasota Police Department headquarters on Ringling Boulevard in downtown Sarasota.

Barwin told the city commissioners this week that the plan should create 48 spaces, which will be metered. The two local governments will divide the revenue, he added, until both have been paid back for their investment. The city would retain ownership of the property.

These are the principles regarding the surface parking lot on Ringling Boulevard. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

The county commissioners voted unanimously on May 8 to approve the concepts.

“I believe this is a fair and equitable resolution,” Barwin told the city commissioners this week. “It may not be perfect,” he added, but it is acceptable to both parties. “More importantly,” he said, “I think it reflects a changing environment between our governments. … We’re getting into a good working relationship. … I hope that can continue.”

Behind the scenes and going forward

Barwin credited Commissioner Shelli Freeland Eddie for much of the effort that went into achieving the resolution of the boards’ conflicts.

“We began the discussions last year when I was mayor,” she explained.

After her colleagues appointed her to be their representative on the county’s Tourist Development Council, Freeland Eddie said, she was able to discuss the CRA issues with County Commissioner Charles Hines, who chairs that board. Hines is the longest-serving member of his board, having been elected for the first time in 2012.

Commissioner Shelli Freeland Eddie. File photo

She added that she and Hines focused on concepts that would be consistent with the tenets of CRAs, as specified in the Florida Statues. Those include eliminating blighted and slum areas, spurring economic development and providing workforce housing, she said. “This was the culmination of those conversations.”

The funds the county has committed would come to the city in lump sums, Barwin pointed out, except in the case of the Marian Anderson Place site. In that situation, he said, the city will be able to draw upon the money from the county as needed.

Commissioner Hagen Brody did ask about the parking lot proposal, noting that he had heard the spaces would be used by employees of the county’s constitutional officers who work in downtown Sarasota.

County Administrator Lewis “did not get into that kind of detail with us,” Barwin replied.

In response to a concern about people having to pay to park in the lot, Barwin noted that the county’s parking garage at the intersection of Ringling Boulevard and School Avenue will remain free.

“It could potentially be a revenue stream for the city’s Parking Department long-term,” Freeland Eddie pointed out of the new lot.

When Brody asked about the affordable housing plans, Barwin explained that the Office of Housing and Community Development serves both the city and the county, so plans would be coordinated through that agency.

“I’m happy that we’re this far [along on a settlement],” Brody replied. Still, “I don’t think we should be in the business of construction and building houses.”

More details would be available later, Barwin told him.

“This just commits the money to move forward,” Mayor Liz Alpert said of the concepts.

Commissioner Willie Shaw made the motion to accept the concepts and to direct City Attorney Robert Fournier and other staff members to draw up the appropriate interlocal agreements. Freeland Eddie seconded the motion, and it then passed unanimously.