With interest rates and construction costs so low, the Sarasota County commissioners Tuesday asked staff and Interim County Administrator Terry Lewis to bring them options next month that could result in all the improvements to the Siesta Public Beach being completed as quickly as 18 months, instead of prolonging the work through fiscal year 2024.
However, County Commission Chairwoman Nora Patterson told her fellow board members, “I can’t support anything that’s going to flat shut down the parking for a season.”
The board Tuesday also approved a request from project manager Spencer Anderson to allow the firm already under contract, Kimley-Horn and Associates, to proceed with the design and engineering work for the improvements. Included in the motion, which passed unanimously, was the approval for staff to proceed with getting bids for the construction of a new stormwater drainage system that has been designed to prevent polluted runoff from necessitating future beach closures.
Anderson explained that the stormwater pond would be moved in the site plan to the border with the Gulf & Bay Club. Anderson has had numerous discussions with residents of that condominium complex regarding the pond’s location. This new plan, Anderson said, is more aesthetically pleasing. It will entail the creation of 130 more parking spaces for the entire park plus the relocation of the tennis courts to an area north of the pond.
Over the past months, Anderson and others have been concerned that the county could lose a $1 million grant from the Southwest Florida Water Management District if the drainage project did not get under way by December. That grant is expected to fund about half the cost of the work.
After the votes Tuesday, Patterson, who lives on the Key, questioned Anderson about whether he could meet the grant deadline.
“We’re going to start construction on that (project) as fast as humanly possible,” he told her.
During his presentation Tuesday, Anderson said the estimated cost of the complete beach project was a little less than $17 million. With plans to draw all the funding from the county’s surtax revenue, the final $9 million needed for the work would not be available until fiscal year 2024. The east parking area, with the 130 extra spaces, would not be constructed until fiscal year 2016, he said, while modifications to the existing parking lot would take place in fiscal year 2019.
“That’s worse than I thought,” Patterson said of the parking plans.
After discussion about how costs probably would grow in the future, Commissioner Joe Barbetta said, “I think we need to look at this project as if we did it all at once.”
Just the day before, he said, the county had heard a good report on its financial status, including its bond rating. The county would save money in the long run by accelerating the beach work, he added.
“My heart’s where you’re going,” Patterson said. “My head’s about 80% where you’re going (but) you can’t shut the beach down for a year” to complete the project as fast as possible.
Barbetta said he expected the work could take no more than 18 months.
But Patterson emphasized the parking concerns. “Just imagine even a single season of shutting down the beach,” she said, especially the impact on businesses and the lost tourist revenue. Perhaps the work could be spread over three years so as not to disrupt the parking, she said.
Barbetta reiterated a point he has made in the past — that the county should have “trolleys going in and out of (the beach park) every 10 minutes,” making it possible for visitors not to have to worry about fewer parking spaces while construction is under way.
“I hope you’re absolutely right,” Patterson told him.
The only commissioner who voiced concerns about accelerating the project was Christine Robinson.
“I don’t have an appetite for a whole lot of borrowing (of money) right now,” she said.
“Let’s make sure we’re not bankrupting some other projects we need,” Patterson said.
If the board could see a matrix showing estimated construction costs from doing the project in phases through fiscal year 2024, compared to the extra cost in interest rates from borrowing funds for faster construction, Barbetta said, “I think you will see quickly that there is substantial savings.”
Finally, Patterson asked Lewis if he understood what the board was seeking.
“We know what to come back with,” he said.
The next scheduled update on the project is Oct. 25. At that time, Anderson said he would have the design and construction options, with construction slated to begin in the summer of 2013.
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