Squaring Off

Guest Correspondence


Sarasota County is threatening (again) to move their offices out of downtown Sarasota. Strained relations from a City-County impasse over a $2 million property have become an issue in the City Commission race, with some candidates calling for kumbaya with the County.    

In 2003, Former County Administrator Jim Ley made noise about moving County offices out of downtown, declaring his interest in the abandoned Arthur Andersen offices off Fruitville near Interstate-75.  In the wake of Ley’s threat to move the County seat, the City and County signed a Memorandum of Understanding which outlines concessions from the City to ensure the County remains in downtown Sarasota.  After nearly a decade of inaction, the County resurrected the agreement last year, demanding the City surrender the deed to an empty lot worth $2 million near the police station on Ringling Boulevard, saying the City is obligated to do so under the 2003 MOU.  

The thing is, that MOU is legally worthless. City Attorney Robert Fournier has written a 14-page memo on the history and enforceability of the MOU. Fournier describes how Jim Ley “skillfully exploited the panic he had engendered by his announcement to the County’s benefit and the City’s detriment.” Regarding commitments to the City of Sarasota, the “County was totally unwilling to let its obligation to remain downtown be quantified in the context of an inter-local agreement in such a way that it would be possible to determine, if necessary, whether the agreement was being adhered to by the County or was being violated.”  The MOU lacks the specificity necessary to make it binding, and County efforts to  enforce the MOU would have the City make concessions absent County guarantees in return. Yes, relations are strained, because the County is looking to take advantage of the City.

The County has a history of undermining the City of Sarasota. The City permitted the County to negotiate the purchase of three lots adjacent to Payne Park on our behalf, and the City wound up paying $2 million over market value. The County divested itself of funding City parks, then lavished millions on the rowing facility. The County worked to game financial standards and have the City issue $50-80 million in stadium bonds and rely on the County funding to pay bondholders. The list goes on.

Recently we saw how this City Commission has the backbone to say “No” to selling public land at half price to Benderson Development, unlike the County, which agreed to sell a parcel near the celery fields to Benderson for between a third and half of its value. Which Commission is looking out for us? 

Candidates who appear unaware of important ways the County has undermined the City concern me. Stan Zimmerman has reported for years on these events. Eileen Normile was the only candidate at a recent forum (Stan couldn’t attend) who explained why the City is declining to give the County the deed to a lot on Ringling Boulevard, who called for improved communication and protecting City interests.  We need this kind of leadership at the City Commission table.

SRQ Daily columnist Cathy Antunes serves on the boards of the Sarasota County Council of Neighborhood Associations and Sarasota Citizens for Responsible Government. She blogs on local politics at www.thedetail.net

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