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Sarasota Friday, May 17, 2019 6 months ago

County identifies several funding priorities at budget workshop

The workshop primarily involved budget updates and reports from various Sarasota County departmental leaders.
by: Samantha Chaney Staff Writer

County administrators, commissioners and department heads alike on Friday discussed what Capital Improvement Program projects they would like to explore and prioritize in the 2020 fiscal year.

The county’s most recent budget workshop addressed a wide variety of fiscal topics, ranging from the national economic landscape to updates on the county’s surtax.

But while discussing the Capital Improvement Program, commissioners seemed drawn to discuss hurricane evacuation centers, a pilot program for extended library hours and new SCAT shelters and vehicles.


Hardening For Hurricanes

With hurricane season beginning June 1, Emergency Services team member Scott Montgomery presented to the Board of County Commissioners the potential sites for a new emergency evacuation center.

According to Montgomery, the county’s hurricane management team has been looking for a new mid-county location that would address the space deficit officials faced in during Hurricane Irma in 2017.

Department leaders presented several possibilities —such as initiating a joint-use plan with Sarasota Memorial Hospital or constructing a new multi-use sports complex — though staff members favored the idea of turning Taylor Ranch Elementary School in Venice into the county’s 12th evacuation center.

Currently, the Emergency Services Department still has approximately $3 million available balance for this purpose, with an additional $455,000 in additional state funds to harden and retrofit Taylor Ranch. Montgomery reported that, should they move forward with Taylor Ranch, they could expect a tentative date of readiness just before the 2020 hurricane season.

While most commissioners were on board, Commissioner Nancy Detert said she was concerned about the site’s ability to flood and would prefer the team choose Venice Middle School, instead.

Ultimately, no plans for future years were announced. The county will continue to explore its options for hurricane shelters.


Worth A Sunday Read

Dan Bailey and Fletcher Rush, members of the Community Advocacy Team for the Library Foundation of Sarasota, approached the Board of County Commissioners during the workshop’s open comment section to request help with various projects aimed at supporting public libraries.

Among them, one idea, in particular, sparked commissioners’ interest: a pilot program that would re-introduce Sunday hours to public libraries in Sarasota County.

If successful, commissioners said, the pilot could especially help families who come from low socioeconomic backgrounds.

“If 51% of our population … of our students are on free or reduced lunch, it seems I can make the leap that, if mom and dad can't feed the kids, they certainly don't have the money to wire their house up with internet,” Commissioner Al Maio said. “I really want to see the segment of our population who uses that on Sunday.”

“I was the kid who used the library on Sundays,” Commissioner Mike Moran added, “So this isn’t a stretch for me to support.”

If introduced, the pilot program would introduce 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. hours at two local libraries.

According to County Administrator Jon Lewis, the program in question is a new idea and is not in the proposed budget.

As a result, commissioners asked staff members and Sarabeth Kalajian — the county’s director of Libraries and Historical Resources — to conduct a study that would include details on costs, locations, timing and an analysis of weekend versus weekday average uses of the libraries.

Commission Chair Charles Hines asked that staff return to the board with new information in June.


Safety, Shelter, SCAT

Rob Lewis, the Interim Director of Sarasota County Area Transit, provided for commissioners an overview of project plans that involve purchasing new vehicles and expanding the transit program’s stops and shelters.

The board has reportedly been pursuing both projects for several years.

In the immediate future, Lewis reported the installation of an additional 18 bus shelters, as well as the replacement of six existing shelters in fiscal year 2020. In 2021, he said, staff members hope to have identified 18 new locations for shelters.

The only new shelter location that Lewis confirmed was that of one on Beach Road on Siesta Key.

“By the end of 2019, we project that 14% of all those stops will have shelters,” Lewis said. “And we continue to press onward with increasing the numbers and percentage of numbers and stops.”

But not all commissioners were satisfied at the prospect of simple shelters.

“You are making progress on these shelters,” Commissioner Al Maio said. “But, for heaven's sake, in some places where we can see the cattle trails indicating high volume going to a bus stop, can’t we put a bench?”

In specific, Maio was distressed at the sight of “elderly people and moms with babies sitting in the dirt” as he drove down the road.

Lewis said he understood Maio’s concern, though no further plan to pursue the benches was mentioned during the workshop.

In both fiscal years, the county also plans to purchase seven replacement diesel buses in total — four is 2020 and three in 2021.

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