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District votes to end funding for estuary program

The Sarasota Bay Estuary Program is being rebuked for management and finance problems.

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  • | 6:00 a.m. October 8, 2015
Lynn Larson, who serves on the SBEP board and the Longboat Key Town Commission.
Lynn Larson, who serves on the SBEP board and the Longboat Key Town Commission.
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The Sarasota Bay Estuary Program may lose 2017 funding from the Southwest Florida Water Management District because of ongoing disagreements about SBEP’s management and finances.

SWFWMD alleges that  SBEP failed to report staff issues in a timely manner, overbilled the district for a project and failed to follow proper accounting procedures.

As a result, SWFWMD voted 9-1 to withdraw from its partnership with SBEP in a Sept. 29 meeting. 

In September 2014, an employee accused SBEP Executive Director Mark Alderson of creating a hostile work environment through aggressive outbursts. 

SWFWMD said SBEP failed to notify the district of the allegations in a timely manner, according to SWFWMD spokeswoman Susanna Martinez Tarokh.

SWFWMD also claims SBEP  billed legal expenses for the investigation of employee misconduct as a grant-writing line item in its project budget and that Alderson failed to follow procedures related to the investigation.

Additionally, SWFWMD says it was overbilled for expenses from August 2013 to August 2014 for construction-related expenses for the Sarasota Bay Habitat Restoration Project.

SWFWMD paid 100% of the project’s $172,000 cost, however,  SBEP was responsible for half those costs. It has agreed to reimburse the water district $86,000.

Alderson said he was unable to comment on the allegations of creating a hostile work environment because the matter is under litigation. But he said  the investigation found no violation of employment law.

Alderson called the alleged overbilling a miscommunication and said SWFWMD would be repaid, but stopped short of saying SBEP overbilled the water district. 

He also noted, in an email to the Sarasota Observer, that “(SBEP has) a full federal and state audit conducted annually, and the results for the past decade have been clean.”

Jenette Seachrist, SWFWMD systems and restoration bureau chief, told the SWFWMD board that the Environmental Protection Agency performs a financial audit every three years and that no problems had been reported.

But Seachrist said SBEP policy board members have failed to arrange for the financial and operational audit SWFWMD has called for during its last two meetings.

Sarasota County Commissioner and SBEP policy board member Charles Hines wrote in an email to the Sarasota Observer that time restraints and the absence of SWFWMD representative Mike Moran prevented SBEP from agreeing to an audit at its Sept. 25 meeting. 

SWFWMD offered $15,000 to fund half of a third-party audit, or to let SBEP use SWFWMD’s inspector general, Kurt Fritsch.

SWFWMD can rescind its withdrawal within 180 days and remain part of the interlocal agreement if it regains confidence.

Created in 1989, SBEP has, with the help of partners like SWFWMD, facilitated restoration of at least 1,550 acres of wetland habitat.

SWFWMD contributes to the program as part of an interlocal agreement with Manatee and Sarasota counties, Sarasota, Bradenton, Longboat Key and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

Without the SWFWMD’s participation in that agreement, Alderson said, the program would lose $72,000, or 12% of its $600,000 inhouse operating budget. Its overall annual budget is $2.3 million, although Alderson did not say how much of that comes from SWFWMD.

Alderson noted, however, that SWFWMD has provided 50-50 funding for most of SBEP’s wastewater reclamation projects.

Alderson said SWFWMD’s importance goes beyond its contributions to clean up the bay. He said he is open to SBEP complying with an audit or any further scrutiny. 

Moran, who sits on the boards of both SBEP and the SWFWMD, said he hopes SBEP will abide by Alderson’s recommendations when it meets Oct. 23.

“I just want the facts,” he said, “and then we can have a good, healthy debate.”

He had emphasized in a statement to the Sarasota Observer and during discussions with SWFWMD board members at their Sept. 29 meeting that SWFWMD supports SBEP. But as a steward of taxpayer money, he said he had no choice but to call for an audit.

“Given an increase in confidence and satisfactory audit findings, I am confident the SWFWMD Board will continue our partnership with the SBEP,” Moran said.

But Longboat Key Town Commissioner and SBEP policy board member Lynn Larson said, while addressing her fellow commissioners Monday, that Alderson’s performance was favorably reviewed two years ago, and criticized SWFWMD’s decision.

“SWFWMD and the FDEP came in and tried to strong-arm the group at our most recent meeting,” she said, concluding that “it seemed almost orchestrated.”


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