Meet the candidate.
Name: Joe Barbetta
Family: Married to Mary Kenealy-Barbetta
Bio: I am an attorney admitted to the New York and Florida Bar and to practice before the U.S. Supreme Court. I've lived in Sarasota County for 37 years and in the city for the past 20 years. I was a Sarasota County commissioner elected for two terms, from 2006 to 2014, and prior to that I was on the Sarasota County Planning Commission for 14 years. I feel that I have strong leadership skills, integrity, experience and fiscal accountability, all of which are sorely needed on the Sarasota City Commission. These qualities will allow me to tackle the very serious problems that are facing the City Commission, including serious budget shortfalls, project cost overruns, lack of oversight, infrastructure deficiencies and a lack of transparency and fiscal accountability. I'm endorsed by numerous public officials in Sarasota, all of whom can be seen on my website, SarasotaKnowsJoe.com.
Why are you running for office?
My eight years, two terms as a county commissioner ended in November 2014. As a resident of the city for the past 20 years, I have closely observed the actions of the City Commission and administration, and I must admit that in the past eight to 10 years, I've witnessed a serious deterioration in proper governance along with a noticeable dysfunction in the meetings and the way the city is being run. I clearly felt that it was time for a change and that I could provide the kind of quality leadership, integrity, experience and fiscal accountability that is sorely needed. I have the time and the qualifications, along with a great relationship with the county and its commissioners, staff and administration, and as you can see by my numerous endorsements, the trust and support of prior and current elected officials. I live downtown, and I am fully aware of what is needed to bring this city back to greatness along with preventing any further unnecessary tax and fee increases.
If elected, what will be your top three priorities during your term?
Overall it would be to provide proper leadership and fiscal accountability throughout government and to restore the faith and trust of the residents in their local government. Restructuring of the administration needs to occur quickly.
- The first would be the serious budget shortfalls, which are upcoming due to the pandemic and shutdown. There will be revenue shortfalls in the sales tax and tourist tax, along with other fees and assistance the city has been accustomed to receive annually. Also possible property value decreases in the years ahead, which will lead to revenue shortfalls. This should have been addressed by now and will obviously need to be addressed by a thorough budget review and cutting where necessary, hiring and wage freezes, 8% to 10% furloughs, no new projects being started, sale of surplus property to raise funds and partnering with the county on cost savings, such as IT/technology and economic development. This issue has been seriously mismanaged by the current commission and the administration.
- The second issue would be the addressing of serious cost overruns on projects and performing better oversight and transparency to avoid these huge problems. Lift Station 87 is a classic example that is now 500% over budget and seven years behind schedule. Also the parking department/parking meter fiascos over the years, again over budget and operating at a loss, the Bobby Jones Golf Course debacle, the excess costs and consultants' fees on the mobility plan and its proposals, all mismanaged projects and total failure of proper oversight and fiscal accountability.
- Thirdly, the large outstanding pension liability. This clearly needs to be dealt with along with the various infrastructure deficiencies throughout the city that have been neglected and clearly need to be addressed.
How do you think the city is being managed and governed? What would you recommend be done differently?
I truly feel that the city is not being properly managed and sorely lacks leadership, transparency and fiscal accountability. It has been dysfunctional for the past several years, and this is why I am running. The complete lack of oversight on projects, the cost overruns, the excess spending, the poor handling of the pandemic and the shutdown, the actions of the city manager, the Lido beach situation that caused serious harm to the business community particularly in the St. Armands area, the Bobby Jones debacle, the July Fouth Ringling Bridge closing for several hours, the ongoing homeless situation, just to name a few. The disrespect at the commission and administration levels is also obvious — just watch the meetings.
From my perspective, it is important to restate the fact that governments do not exist simply for the purpose of raising taxes and spending money but in reality to efficiently and effectively provide the essential services to its citizens that enhance public safety and our quality of life. That should be the top priority. It clearly hasn't been for many years. In fact, in looking at the city website, which lists the seven priorities of the City Commission and administration, health and public safety is listed as No. 6. It clearly should be No. 1 or 2.
The first thing to be done is a complete and detailed review of the current and upcoming budget, breaking it down and finding where unnecessary spending is occurring and eliminating it. No new taxes or fees must be the goal. Freeze salaries and new hires; furlough some employees; stop any new, unnecessary and nonessential projects; find ways to partner with the county on cost saving measures, such as IT/technology and economic development. Review all surplus property owned by the city, and if no designated required future use than put it up for sale, thus not only raising funds for the budget but also getting the property back on the tax rolls thus creating that future annual property tax revenue source along with possible job creation by the private sector investing in these properties. Move the bus transfer station over to the county's Ringling Garage, and then get the property sold where it is currently located, thus getting it back on the tax rolls along with possible job creation by the new business or businesses which are constructed there. Also engage in addressing any infrastructure deficiencies to avoid any pollution to our valuable bays and waterways.
As for the unfunded and pension liabilities, in addition to the potential revenue sources and savings mentioned earlier, I would engage the services of two or three top CPAs whose specialty is municipal financing and retirement plans along with pension consultants to review everything and come up with ideas, possible solutions and a detailed plan to address these issues, especially in this low interest rate environment.
Again, no new taxes or fees must be the marching orders for new commissioners. In my eight years as a county commissioner including during the time of the serious recession of 2009-2012, we did not raise taxes.
On a scale of 1-10, with 10 being excellent, how would you rate the performance of the city manager?
I would give him a rating of 3. For far too long he has acted like a "boss mayor," or what we often call the "sixth commissioner." He is unelected, serves at the pleasure of the City Commission and should not be making policy or doing critical things without the full and complete knowledge and approval of all of the commissioners. There is a total lack of oversight of some of the staff, the huge cost overruns on various projects, the failure to act in a fiscally responsible manner during the pandemic and shutdown, and overseeing property tax and fee increases, which should not have been necessary. The year-over-year budget increases are not justified. Also his stubbornness in dealing with the county on various issues, such as homelessness and joint costs savings, is wrong and totally lacking in doing what is in the best interests of the residents of the city. The Bobby Jones debacle is his latest. Admittedly, some of this is clearly due to the failure of the City Commission to properly review and oversee his actions and to admonish him or take other more serious action.
The dysfunction in the city government must end immediately. It is embarrassing, unprofessional and certainly not in the best interests of the residents of this city.
What should be done to address the supply of workforce housing?
Governments have always had a problem addressing this issue. Numerous studies and consultant reports sit on shelves gathering dust and nothing really gets done. An excellent study and report was done by Scope many, many years ago with tremendous public input and that should be looked at and reconsidered. There were some great ideas including incentives along with the maintaining of affordability. Many community leaders from the private and nonprofit sector participated in this process of coming up with the report. We should look at best practices in other communities that have been successful in providing this housing. In addition, we should work closely with Habitat and other nonprofit and private entities that have been doing it successfully and figure out ways to help them and incentivize them to expand upon their work. An affordable housing trust fund is another strong possibility coupled with looking at surplus land owned by the city and county. Government can't solve this problem alone, but we all know that a viable solution is sorely needed, not only the affordability element but also true workforce housing in this expanding economy with all the hotels and other businesses in the city, which require service employees who truly can't afford to live anywhere close to where these jobs are and are driving long distances every day to come into the city. All regulations should be looked at and modified where necessary to assist with the implementation in bringing about true workforce and affordable housing. Seeking partnerships with the county is also a key element.
As was so eloquently stated by Renee Snyder, the president and CEO of Habitat Sarasota, "The prescription for improved health, happiness, higher education, increased opportunities, financial stability and a brighter future starts with permanent, affordable housing." She is spot-on, and we must work with her and others to incentivize that process and help provide the appropriate solutions.
Do you support creating a special tax-increment financing district near the Bay Park to help finance the $200 million project? If not, how do you think the park renovation should be funded?
Yes, as long as the boundary limitations are appropriate for the district and the governance and term length are fair to both the city and the county. I would propose a governing board of two city commissioners, two county commissioners and the fifth person being a business person, such as a CPA or retired CEO or someone along those lines. The TIF should not, however, be the only method of financing for this project. It should be one of several methods considered for raising funds.
The Bay Sarasota project is truly a great opportunity to properly develop a beautiful piece of waterfront property and will most certainly end up as a wonderful legacy project for the entire community once completed. The volunteer board overseeing this has done an excellent job in working through the process and in hiring a superb consultant and planning firm, Sasaki, together with the supporting staff. In addition they have successfully been able to bring in some private and foundation funding to get things going. It will be a somewhat tough road ahead to raise additional public funds in this environment due to the COVID-19 effects and the huge financial impacts to the city and county resulting from the shutdown. No one truly knows the dollar impacts yet, but at this five- to six-month mark our local governments have suffered from a large loss of revenue receipts from sales tax, tourist tax, gas tax and several other fees and revenue sources. This loss will increase in the months ahead. The TIF district with the county is one of the possibilities being discussed now as a revenue source, and it will take strong leadership and an improved relationship with the county to get that finalized. This is such a great and exciting project with incredible possibilities, and it's unfortunate that it might take a protracted period of time to get it fully developed. It might be worth looking into opportunities to get a large infusion of private sector funds to assist with the overall development and build-out of the project.
The Van Wezel Foundation is supporting the development of a new performing arts center at the Bay Park. What’s your view of that, and how do you think a center should be financed?
I admire and support the work of the Van Wezel Foundation, and it should be commended for its efforts. These are tough times to raise money, and certainly, governments are strapped due to the anticipated large loss of revenue due to the COVID-19 situation and the shutdown. Budgets will be affected for the next several years. The city's failure to address these shortfalls much earlier and act accordingly will only exacerbate that situation. The Van Wezel is a huge attraction with great shows and performances, conferences and speaker series along with all the work that they do with the children and the school system. Its work is invaluable combined with their revenue generation, job creation and economic impact. Its board has decided to locate it at the Bay Park, near the site of the current Van Wezel, and obviously, construction of a new facility will be expensive in light of the FEMA requirements. All types and forms of funding and financing mechanisms must be explored and considered.
In any event, it will take a large campaign by the foundation to help raise funds for the new performing arts center. Exploration of grants is another possibility, but again governments are all suffering from a shortage of accustomed revenue sources, so the grants will need to come from large foundations and nonprofits that support the performing arts. Also consideration of possible funds from the tourist development tax receipts, but again these numbers will be down for quite some time unfortunately due to a huge drop in tourism. Because this will be an iconic building and in use for a considerable period of time, the naming rights might also be an opportunity to be considered for a large infusion of funds.
Bobby Jones Golf Club: Do you agree with the commission’s most recent decision to downsize to 27 holes of golf and a 130-acre park? If not, what would you propose differently?
The Bobby Jones Golf Course is a beautiful piece of property with incredible potential. However, the city should not be in the golf course business. It can't afford it, it doesn't know how to do it, and it certainly can't afford to pump another $20-plus million dollars into it. That kind of money is sorely needed for infrastructure improvements throughout the city. I would propose that the city retain ownership but that it contracts with a high quality, well respected golf course operator to run an 18-hole course (not 27) for the city. Negotiate a mutually beneficial agreement for that portion of the property. As for the remainder of the property, I would explore options for a park, a recreation area for the community, a stormwater retention area similar to Celery Fields on a smaller scale, along with other ideas that might be brought forward. The city should work with the county on various joint ideas that might be beneficial to all of the taxpayers and residents and immediately limit or eliminate the huge cost burden that now exists. It's a large parcel, and other opportunities could be explored for possibly working with the private sector to build workforce type housing as an example of other potential uses for a portion of this large parcel.
Where do you stand on the roundabout at Gulfstream and U.S. 41?
I think that there has not been a complete and full understanding of the negative secondary impacts and the unintended consequences that will result not only during the long construction process but also in its operation upon final completion. I think it is sort of an afterthought in trying to squeeze it into a small area after pretty much everything around it is already built out. I feel that it is too late for this, and it will not alleviate the problems and might in fact exacerbate them. First of all, the so-called "roundabouts" in and around the city are really just "traffic circles." Their design does not truly slow down speed because they've been shoehorned into small areas and don't allow for speed reduction on the approaches. I come from an area that not only has traffic circles but also true roundabouts, and we do not have the latter here in Sarasota even though we call them that. In any event, I think this project needs to be put on hold immediately. The third turn lane that was put in as you come off the bridge approaching 41 has been helpful, and when the Fruitville/41 construction is complete, we can see how it fully operates and study its efficiency along with its problems, if any. Serious consideration needs to be given to all residents west of this intersection, including St. Armands, Lido and Longboat Key, and the effects that the construction and final product will have on them. Serious consideration also needs to be given to rerouting southbound 41 thru-traffic going to points south of downtown to utilize 10th Street or Fruitville to get over to U.S. 301 to head south. Improvements should be made to 10th Street all the way to U.S. 301 to help accomplish this. Conversely the same for northbound traffic heading to points north of downtown.
The STOP group wanted the city to require public review hearings for large development projects in the city instead of administrative reviews by the city staff. What’s your position on that?
Administrative site plan review and approval for projects in the downtown zoning districts has been working as it was intended and has transformed the downtown from its slow, unproductive and somewhat unattractive nature prior to 2001 to the relatively vibrant downtown that it has become with more improvements yet to come.
This process during 2000-01 was carefully thought-out, reviewed, discussed and agreed upon by the thousands of people in the city who participated in the numerous charrettes held by Andres Duany, the urban planner hired by the city, along with city planning staff. Presentations were also made to the planning board and City Commission along with multiple other groups in the city with great input from all involved prior to the plan being approved by the commission and submitted to the state. The plan appears to be doing what it was designed to do, creating a mixed use, walkable, vibrant downtown area. Prior to 2000, there was minimal investment in the city, and it certainly wasn't a vibrant downtown. After implementation, there was confidence among the business community to invest in the city, and we are now seeing the results of those investments.
Undoubtedly, a few things could have been done a little differently in possibly stepping back some of thee taller building from the second floor level upward and modification like that in the future can be worked on with staff along with community input. As for projects outside the downtown area, administrative review could be considered on smaller projects that meet certain conditions that had no real impact on adjacent properties, and then staff could provide the commission with suggestions and implementation measures for larger projects that have impacts on adjacent properties to include the public hearing and community input process along with suggestions relative to mitigation measures. Mutual agreement can be reached in protecting the neighborhoods and other adjacent parcels with the proper code adjustments to assist in allowing quality projects to move forward without overburdensome regulations.
Many people have complained about all the condos and apartments being developed with little setbacks. If elected, will you initiate a change to the city’s zoning?
Again, as mentioned in my prior response, the downtown code was approved by the City Commission after careful review and tremendous input from the community through a serious of charrettes and public meetings. However, this doesn't eliminate the update and review process because we're now approaching the 20th year since its adoption. It should be discussed and reviewed at the commission level, and where necessary, staff should be directed to bring back suggestions, possible updates and proposed changes for discussion and consideration. For the most part, the downtown area has developed pretty well and has become more vibrant over the years. There are, however, a few buildings that present concerns to some of the residents and adjoining properties. I would suggest that staff take public input from the residents and the business community on all of this and present possible options to the commissioners for review and consideration. One example that I had thought Duany advocated but doesn't seem to have been implemented was the step back, staggered height feature of some of the newer tall buildings. I believe he encouraged the first floor retail at ground level pretty much up to the sidewalk and each floor over that stepped back incrementally. That hasn't happened and should be looked at by staff for future consideration.
The transportation concerns of the city’s barrier islands don’t always mesh with those of downtown and other portions of the city. What’s the best way to align those competing concerns?
Communication and collaboration are key elements in reaching consensus. They all must be listened to and be part of the process. Transportation planning cannot be done in a vacuum, and all impacts must be considered. Hurricane evacuation routes and emergency vehicle access needs are paramount. The residents on both sides of the bridge should always be informed and engaged in the process, and all transportation proposals by staff and decisions by the commission and administration must have full and complete transparency for all involved and affected. It's the unintended consequences and the negative secondary impacts of decisions made without the proper process and input that end up causing the problems and concerns. Again, transparency, communication and collaboration with all involved will result in a better process and a better product.
What are your suggestions on a new home for the orchestra?
The City Commission and administration do not seem to fully comprehend the tremendous importance of our arts and cultural institutions here in the city. These organizations not only enrich our community culturally, but they employ a considerable number of very talented people, they work with our children in our schools, and they are a critical component to our economic base. I think it's very unfortunate how the orchestra proposal was handled, and I would make every effort to encourage them to bring their plan and proposal back for a new review by the commission, which hopefully will have new leadership. The goal of the new commission should be to make every reasonable effort to keep them in the city.
If proposed by a commissioner, would you vote in favor of putting a referendum on the ballot to create an elected mayor form of government? If not, why not?
Yes, I would. It is long overdue. For far too long this city has been in need of quality leadership. A true "CEO" of the city similar to what has been seen in cities like Charleston with Joe Riley, along with St. Pete, Jacksonville and several other vibrant cities should be a top consideration. Let the public decide by placing it on the ballot.
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