The design pencils are back to scribbling plans for the Siesta Key public beach renovation after a three-month standoff about cost estimates and add-ons.
Sarasota County commissioners approved the 60% design phase of the project, which currently has a $21.5 million budget, and compressed a construction timeframe that stretched to 2024 down to roughly 27 months.
In September, county staff stopped the design team, Kimley Horn and Associates and Sweet Sparkman Architects, from further work on the plans so it could collect public input on proposed alternatives, according to an email from Sarasota County Project Manager Curtis Smith.
“Our beach is a golden egg that has brought a lot of people revenue,” said Siesta Key Association President Catherine Luckner, who spoke to the board about the urgency to proceed with the project.
Commissioners also voted, with Commission Chairwoman Christine Robinson dissenting, to borrow against future surtax dollars for any costs greater than the $7.5 million already appropriated for the project.
“The caveat there is the program will be very tight going forward,” said Sarasota County Director of Financial Planning Steve Botelho.
The surtax program, also called the economic stimulus program, allows the county to issue bonds to fast-track capital projects. The debt payments are funded through a one-cent sales tax.
But, borrowing too much can cripple a county’s ability to pay for necessary routine services, such as repaving streets, explained Commissioner Nora Patterson.
The county can take advantage of depressed construction prices by bonding and building in the compressed timeframe, Barbetta has said.
“This is really going to disrupt the community,” said newly elected Commissioner Charles Hines. “It makes sense to do it all at once.”
Robinson asked the design team to replace a dune walkover for emergency vehicles, which Kimley Horn staff said would add $80,000 to $100,000 to the approved “base design” cost.
The approved construction budget is fixed at $16.7 million and will be sent out to bid separate from $4.2 million worth of alternatives presented to the board.
Robinson was hesitant to approve bonding for the beach project because the $22 million to $30 million emergency telecommunication upgrade is also funded with surtax dollars.
But, Director of Financial Planning Steve Botelho explained that the county could safely borrow funds to complete that project as well, and bonding wouldn’t affect any other board-approved projects.
Robinson asked Botelho explain the difference between the words ‘budget’ and ‘cost’ during the meeting, which she said contributed to the public outrage after the total estimated cost of the entire project was said to be $27 million.
The $27-million estimate included some of the alternative enhancement options, which Robinson and Commissioner Joe Barbetta called “bells and whistles.”
The organization endorsed the analysis by Siesta architect by Mark Smith that shaved an additional $2 million from the $16.7 million project estimate.
County staff and the design team, which includes Sweet Sparkman Architects, estimated material costs based on similar government projects.
But, it’s difficult to say how much bids will differ from forecasts, because the county hasn’t done a beach project of this size, said County Resource Manager Hank Schneider.