The Sarasota County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) found a rare patch of common ground this week with area residents who have mobilized against proposed changes to Sarasota 2050 — disappointment in a report intended to analyze the impact of key changes to the comprehensive plan.
At a Tuesday commission meeting, county commissioners sounded off on the outcome of a draft report produced by consultants Laffer and Associates, which, according to commissioners, was originally intended to analyze the effects of modifying the fiscal neutrality constraints of the Sarasota 2050 comprehensive plan.
The report comes with $90,000 price tag, but county commissioners are at this point only obligated to pay $43,000, with the remaining payment tied to the board's decision on whether or not to move forward with the report's completion.
The BCC directed Interim County Administrator Thomas Harmer to consult with Laffer and Associates regarding proposed changes to the draft's direction and focus, and to report back to commissioners at Wednesday's commission meeting to propose a way forward.
County commissioners uniformly criticized the draft, saying that it overreached in its scope and failed to adequately address the issues it was intended to study.
“This report went off track,” Commissioner Joe Barbetta said. “It was supposed to be limited to fiscal neutrality and timing issues.”
Barbetta joined other commissioners in expressing disappointment that the draft ultimately focused on other issues such as modifying the urban service boundary.
“We wanted an analysis, not a theoretical report,” Commissioner Christine Robinson said. “I'm very upset that taxpayer money was spent to go on an intellectual vacation.”
Although commissioners shared common misgivings about the final direction of the report, there was some disagreement about who was ultimately to blame.
Commissioner Nora Patterson expressed disappointment in the consultant's work.
Barbetta and Robinson laid the blame on former County Administrator Randall Reid, saying that he overstepped the bounds of what the commission originally intended the report to look at.
“The direction given to the firm were for things that shouldn't have been in discussion at all,” Barbetta said, referring to the requirements handed down by Reid to Laffer Associates. “The urban service boundary was never supposed to be up for debate."
Barbetta suggested the report may need to be completely redone for the commission to glean from it the necessary information.
“Lafferty did what they were asked to do,” Robinson said. “We can't hold Laffer accountable for what was asked for in the contract. We're going to have to fix this.”
“We got your answer from their perspective about what we should do with fiscal neutrality, which is to scrap it,” Patterson said.
The Sarasota County Council of Neighborhood Associations (CONA), which has come out in opposition to the commission's plans to modify the 2050 plan, held a press conference on the steps of the county administration building on Monday, blasting the report for a different reason.
CONA Vice President Cathy Antunes said the report was biased toward developers’ interests.
“We want to see a credible report,” Antunes said, claiming that the BCC’s proposed changes to the 2050 plan were likely driven by political contributions. “There are six firms pushing for these changes, those six firms also contribute heavily to political campaigns.”
At Tuesday’s County Commission meeting, Barbetta pushed back against claims that the move to modify 2050 was for political payback.
“We need to get this back on track,” Barbetta said. “We are only growing at 1.6% annually over the past 10 years — that’s not rampant growth. We need to expand our tax base, and that’s why we need to get 2050 to work right.”
The Sarasota 2050 debate in the County Commission chambers will continue at 9 a.m., Wednesday, Nov. 20, at the Sarasota County Adminstration Center, 1660 Ringling Blvd., Sarasota.
The event will also be live-streamed on the Sarasota County website: www.scgov.net
Contact Nolan Peterson at [email protected]