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City Commission candidates address questions of downtown residents' groups

In agreement on many key issues, the three candidates for two Sarasota City Commission seats tried to separate themselves from the rest before two downtown groups.

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With the departure of Hagen Brody and the term expiration of Jen Ahearn-Koch, the two Sarasota City Commission at-large seats are up for grabs in the Nov. 8 election. The three candidates who advanced from a primary field of six — incumbent Ahearn-Koch, Debbie Trice and Dan Lobeck — are aligned in many respects, particularly on the matter of expanded administrative review for residential developments that include affordable and attainable housing components.

During a candidate forum hosted by the Downtown Sarasota Alliance and Downtown Sarasota Condo Association, the three addressed matters of interest to the residents the two organizations represent, and do their best to distinguish themselves from their opponents. Here are their responses to select questions, edited for brevity and clarity.

On civility and decorum at City Commission meetings, where a code of conduct is read at the start of each session.

Sarasota City Commission at-large candidate and incumbent Jen Ahearn-Koch. (Andrew Warfield)
Sarasota City Commission at-large candidate and incumbent Jen Ahearn-Koch. (Andrew Warfield)

Ahearn-Koch: I think we all have to remember at the commission table it’s not personal. It's the issues that we're talking about. We only represent you and your voice. We have to make decisions about the future of the city, growth and the decisions that you want us to make. And it is not about personalities. … I wholeheartedly support civil and polite conduct at the commission meetings, not only there but also in any sort of public forum as a city commissioner. I think that we should speak to the issues at all times.

Lobeck: I have a lot of experience being on boards of civic organizations and professional organizations. I understand in a group of decision makers you're not going to prevail in advancing your objectives with your one vote. You do that by listening to the other commissioners and dealing with serious policy differences of people that are pretty direct, but not in a way that is going to be counter to that objective of getting things accomplished.

Trice: It's unfortunate that we would have to repeat the pledge of behavior and I would have hoped that we wouldn't need to do that. But the other issue is when somebody violates it, they should be notified immediately that this behavior is not acceptable. Sometimes we have seen during public comments, inappropriate behavior and messaging and that should be addressed immediately, also. So bear that in mind. What kind of personality do you want in the office?

On how well the city is dealing with homelessness, especially in the downtown area.

Lobeck: There is a homelessness problem in this city and it’s been getting worse. Over the past three years the number of unsheltered homeless has escalated. Anybody walking downtown knows this personally. I favor finding a shelter location maybe within the city or working with the county where the homeless people can receive the services they need. It hasn't really come to the City Commission much, but the commissioners ought to be involved in this, not just leave it to city management. Finding a solution needs to be addressed and not just accepting it as inevitable.

Trice: We're seeing way more homeless hanging out downtown and in the Rosemary District than we were seeing since six months ago. I can see putting signs downtown, or wherever homeless congregate with the phone number of the Homeless Outreach Team. Unfortunately, right now, Sarasota is our emergency shelter, which is at the Salvation Army in Rosemary District and serves Manatee County and Sarasota County. The homeless that they pick up in those two counties get brought to the Rosemary District and dropped off. So there needs to be a discussion with Manatee and Sarasota counties, and ideally get them to establish emergency homeless shelters in their jurisdictions.

Ahearn-Koch: This is a really important issue and the city has been grappling with it for a number of years. When I ran in 2017 it was probably the top issue. We were just at the beginning of our homelessness effort. The city through the Suncoast Partnership to End Homelessness at the same time every year literally count every unsheltered person in the city. In 2015 in the city there were 1,106 homeless people. In 2022 there are 222 homeless people in the city, an 80% decrease in seven years. These are facts. These are numbers. I am not denying that we don't see homeless people there. I'm not denying that they don't do things that they shouldn't be doing. But it remains a fact that we have reduced our homelessness and we are a model throughout the country.

On addressing the costs of replacing aging utility infrastructure paid for by increasing fees on customers

Sarasota City Commission at-large candidate Dan Lobeck. (Andrew Warfield)
Sarasota City Commission at-large candidate Dan Lobeck. (Andrew Warfield)

Lobeck: There is a 3.5% annual increase for 11 years on utility bills for every business in the city, and there should be an examination of alternative forms of revenue. The tax increment financing technique is often used for infrastructure. At a time when hundreds of thousands of gallons of sewage are spilling into the bay because of pipes that have reached the end of their useful life, more needs to be done to prevent them from continuing in the future. I think it's a matter of redirected resources. When your roof is leaking, you don’t go out and buy a brand new Porsche. In a city facing this need and other needs, committing itself for the replacement of the Van Wezel with a new facility costing hundreds of millions that the city doesn’t have.

Trice: Infrastructure is one of the most important functions of city government and that's one of the most important uses of tax money. I was disappointed to read that all of the money for the improvement of the water system went to usage fee payers because infrastructure improvements improve the value of one's property, so part of that should have been for ad valorem taxes. And I think if we look more closely at the needs, nobody likes the idea of paying more taxes, but this is how we contribute to a better city for us to live in. If we don't pay taxes, things will deteriorate. So where the need is there for city function, we should be paying for it through our taxes.

Ahearn-Koch: The city of Sarasota utilities department did a master plan three years ago and they spent a year doing this master plan. In it they talked about how our infrastructure for our water utilities is between 45 and 70 years old. And then if we don't start aggressively replacing it and fixing it, then we will have spills

The utilities director came to us with the master plan and gave us three choices of ways to fund this. It's $300 million. It's absolutely necessary that we upgrade our infrastructure and we voted to increase the rates by 3.5% over 11 years. It was a commission decision and I think we all chose that because it was the most fiscally conservative way to go about fixing our infrastructure.

Our investment in our infrastructure is what we have to do to keep our water clean. When you have spills it helps to feed red tide and blue-green algae and everything starts to deteriorate. Then we don't become the place where people want to come and visit, buy homes, go out to dinner and go to shops. So it's really important for us to remember that our environment is our economy, and we must protect our environment.

On replacing or repurposing the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall as part of the restoration of The Bay park

Lobeck: This agreement does not allow the Van Wezel to stand and be repurposed. It prohibits its use for performing arts in any way. It would directly compete with the new facility. And it has to be economically self-sustaining, so it can't be a museum or an education center. The first first sketch showed the Van Wezel erased and after the influence of some people it got put back on the drawing. The donations that are supposed to pay for half of the building over a period of time as the building is being built, $175 million is what they promised. They’ve raised $10 million so far. There are good people behind the idea of getting a new performing arts center, and if they get voter approval, Godspeed to them. It needs to be put out for a public referendum.

Ahearn Koch: As we all know the coast of Florida is lined with beaches. What makes us different? What makes us special? It's our culture and our arts and humanities that make us very different than any other city in the state, and so I very much value our arts organizations and our cultural organizations. We had this partnership agreement (with the Bay Park Conservancy) come before the City Commission. I voted against the partnership agreement because we were not given enough details about where the money would come from and how the money would be spent. We were not given timelines. We were not given management agreements. We were not given a feasibility study. We were not given a marketing study. … What are we going to do with that iconic building? It can definitely be repurposed and reused for something else. And that is not going to cost nothing. That's going to cost millions of dollars. So if we're going to plan for a new performing arts center, if that's what the community wants, what kind of performing arts center do we want? How are we going to get that money and pay for it? Something happens in this town. It's called demolition by neglect. We neglect fixing up the building and then we have to tear it down.

Sarasota City Commission at-large candidate Debbie Trice. (Andrew Warfield)
Sarasota City Commission at-large candidate Debbie Trice. (Andrew Warfield)

Trice: I have a lot of questions about about the agreement and like both Jen and Dan I was very dissatisfied with the lack of information and that was provided. And too often we get these very high-level proposals and we never get the details and nobody's really forthcoming about the details. I sat down with the CEO of the Performing Arts Foundation to get some more information. One of the things I had a lot of questions about are operational aspects, which were not provided at all, and how it would be profitable. What happens if the thing is a white elephant? Who gets stuck with the bills and maintaining it? But the biggest question that was raised by the community is how in the world is the city going to pay for its portion? At the time that the Bay Park Conservancy was established, a TIF was established … and that's the money that is planned to be spent for building a performing arts center.

I agree wholeheartedly with Jen that we should not be spending money on the SPAC based on that we will be using for other city services and requirements. But the TIF money can only be used for capital improvements in The Bay park area. The Bay Park Conservancy just announced new projections are that they’re going to get three times the amount of their original projection of how much (TIF revenue) is going to be coming in based on all the new unexpected development. My position is based solely on the TIF being adequate to pay for the city's portion.



Andrew Warfield

Andrew Warfield is the Sarasota Observer city reporter. He is a four-decade veteran of print media. A Florida native, he has spent most of his career in the Carolinas as a writer and editor, nearly a decade as co-founder and editor of a community newspaper in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina.

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