Sarasota County’s Bait and Switch

Citizens of Sarasota County in March 1999 approved and via taxes funds the Environmentally Sensitive Lands Protection Program (ESLPP) and Neighborhood Parkland Acquisition Program, which are designed to acquire and protect natural lands and park lands. Citizens are now questioning county staff efforts to transfer development rights (TDRs) from these publicly owned lands to selected developers. You may read a Cornell University history of Transfer Development Rights programs by going here.

Cathy Antunes, President of Sarasota Citizens for Responsible Government, in an email states, “A TDR means Transfer of Development Right. One TDR equals the right to build one dwelling. The County has purchased land for preservation, and some of the County lands set aside for preservation could have been used to build housing. Those preserved lands each have a TDR value.”

Private landownership was and remains one of the first measures of citizenship in the United States. The passion to protect the right of property owners to reap economic gain from their land still burns strongly today. However, is the selling of public land TDRs a government bait and switch?

Accoring to Ms. Antunes, “County staff is advocating that the development rights, or TDRs, for preserved County land be sold to developers so they can increase the dwelling density of their projects. For instance, a developer could pay the County for 1000 TDRs and then build 1000 extra dwellings in the same space where before only 350 dwellings would be allowed. The purchase of 1000 TDRs transfers the right to build 1000 dwellings from County owned preserved land to a different site belonging to the new owner of the TDRs. At this point in time the County does not have an accurate inventory of publicly owned TDRs, nor do they have a reliable method of valuing what a TDR is worth.”

“Regarding County TDR value, so far only one TDR appraisal exists, created by an appraiser that has completed at least one problematic appraisal for Sarasota in the past. That was the Payne Park (3 lot) appraisal done in 2008, which inflated the purchase price of land bought by the City of Sarasota by 2 million dollars. The appraiser valued 3 separate lots along 301 (adjacent to Payne Park) as if they were already one assembled parcel, instead of individually. The result was a 2 million dollar value inflation and gouging of Sarasota City taxpayers. Ouch! Should the County be relying on that same appraiser to be telling them what a TDR is worth? The methodology used to value a County TDR warrants careful scrutiny. At least two more appraisals should be sought,” states Ms. Antunes.

During a radio interview Kathy Bolam characterize the sale of public land TDRs as “Sarasota County’s form of Cap and Trade”. The county is selling something that belongs to the public for a price that it determines outside of the real-estate open market system. Beth Colvin, in an email exchange with Ms. Antunes, states, “Land taken by the govt stops bringing in property taxes and then the rest of us must subsidize the taxes because gov’t has no money other than ours.  If the land can be developed by the government it surely can be developed by private enterprise.”

Ms. Antunes raises a question dealing with the ethical behavior of Mr. Roland Piccone, member of the County Planning Commission.

Ms. Antunes notes, “Now for the ethical question. A development company – Lindvest – would like to purchase 1000 TDRs from the County so that a 350 dwelling project can become a 1350 dwelling project.  A managing partner of Lindvest is also a sitting Sarasota County Planning Commissioner.  That Planning Commissioner is lobbying the County Commission to allow the sale of 1000 TDRs to Lindvest, so they can increase a 350 unit project to a 1350 unit project.  The Planning Commissioner, Mr. Roland Piccone, is “overseeing the planning and development of the project” (quote from the Herald Tribune).  An obvious ethical question arises:  Does the County Ethics Policy allow a sitting planning commissioner to lobby the County Commission on behalf of his employer or company that he/she has an interest in?   Still waiting for clarification from the County regarding the ethics question.”

Pensions, Sick Leave & Vacation Days Bankrupting FL

Slade O’Brien, Director of Americans for Prosperity – Florida, was in Sarasota to present the “Five For Florida” plan to over 200 activists. According to their website, “Five For Florida is a policy plan that outlines five key issues that elected officials can address that will make Florida more economically competitive and government more transparent and accountable.”

Five For Florida is a policy platform that offers real solutions for a better Florida. The plan outlines five key issues that elected officials can address now to encourage free market principles and government accountability, in order to make Florida number one for families, businesses and entrepreneurs. The five key issues are:

ONE: Reform Taxes & End Corporate Welfare

TWO: Don’t Make Financial Promises Taxpayers Can’t Keep

THREE: Be Steward of Good, Transparent Government

FOUR: Empower Kids With the Best Education

FIVE: Free Entreprenuers to Pursue the American Dream

Issue TWO requires that all new state and local government employees be enrolled in 401(k)-style, defined contribution retirement plans. According to the Five For Florida website, “Our politicians must stop making promises that taxpayers can’t afford. We must force them to be honest with us, and make decisions that will protect us now and in the future. We need an honest, transparent retirement plan that works for both hardworking taxpayers and government workers, and we need a property insurance system that will protect our homes without jeopardizing our future financial security.”

Five For Florida presents the following facts:

  • Florida’s Retirement System (FRS) serves more than 1 million government employees, making it the fourth largest public pension program in the country. Source: James Madison Institute
  • The FRS is 88% funded, assuming a 7.75% return on investment. Over the last 12 years, the fund has received an average return of 3.3%. Source: James Madison Institute
  • Florida currently has an optional defined contribution plan, however only 16% of employees elect to be enrolled in it, versus the 84% in the pension plan. Source: James Madison Institute
  • Public sector pension programs guarantee a rate of return that is 3 to 4 times higher than what private sector workers are able to earn. Source: The Heritage Foundation
  • The State of Florida currently contributes $5.5 billion per year to the FRS, but would need to double that contribution to $11 billion a year for the fund to remain solvent. Source: James Madison Institute

Adding to the promises that add to the taxpayers burden is allowing public employees to roll over sick leave and vacation days. According to Brittany Alana Davis’s Tampa Bay Times article “Unused sick days make a nice parting gift for state workers” reports:

“In the budget year that ended June 30 [2012], the state paid out $51.7 million in sick and annual leave to state workers, even as it slashed funds for higher education and public school maintenance. About 28,000 employees left the state during that period.

The figure — which does not include state university and college employees — is only expected to climb as boomers retire. Critics say the system is out of line with the private sector, where few businesses allow employees to roll over their sick days or obtain cash payouts. Most private businesses will not pay employees for more than a few weeks of leave time, and will not pay for unused sick days.”

Davis noted in her article, “Another problem: The state can rarely revoke accrued time, even for those who leave in disgrace.”

Slade O’Brien will be interviewed on Watchdog Wire Radio WWPR AM 1490 Monday, July 16, 2012 from 11:00 to Noon EST. To listen to the live stream over the internet go to this link.

City of Sarasota accused of violating Florida anti-trust law

city of sarasota logo

Government contracting has become a major sticking point in Sarasota County, Florida and now at the City of Sarasota Commission level. Sarasota County government has had problems within its contracting process. Staff was allowed to operate in a manner that brought discredit upon the County Commissioners. The County has lost not only their administrator but the confidence of the people. In March 2011 former County employee Rodney Gene Jones was arrested for accepting bribes from contractors. Jones was arrested under the Florida Anti-Trust Act of 1980.

Whenever our elected officials become too dependent on staff and committees bad things can and usually do happen. Fast forward to today. Are we seeing a repeat of what happened at the county level with the City of Sarasota? The filing of a complaint involving Minder & Associates Engineering Corporation may give us a clue.John C. Minder P. E., P. S. M., President of Minder & Associates Engineering Corporation, has been a Registered Professional Engineer in six states including Florida and a Registered Professional Surveyor & Mapper in two states including Florida. John has lived in Sarasota County for thirty years.Recently John submitted a routine proposal to the City of Sarasota. His proposal was ultimately denied, which is fine until John began checking into how his bid was scored and who scored it. What got John’s interest was an anonymous letter he received about possible staff malfeasance on a county contract due to improper scoring.

John submitted a formal complaint to the City Commissioners.  In his complaint John states, “It is our professional opinion that the … scoring of points out of a possible 100 points was arbitrary and capricious by two of the Engineering Technicians on the Selection Committee.”

The complaint points out, “Although we are not trained investigators it is our professional opinion there appears to be collusion between the scoring of points by Engineering Technician’s Proposer No. 1 and Proposer No. 5 of 66.5 points or at a minimum a lack of professional qualifications to be on the Selection Committee. It is also our professional opinion that there is some sort of a connection between Bayside Engineering, Inc. of Tampa, FL and some members of the Selection Committee.”

The complaint concludes, “Our appeal to the City of Sarasota, FL City Commissions of the violation of CHAPTER 542 OF THE FLORIDA ANTITRUST ACT OF 1980 includes the arbitrary and capricious scoring of points by some of the members of the Professional Review Selection Committee. Some members of the Professional Review Selection Committee were not Registered Professional Engineers but they were reviewing the qualifications of Registered Professional Engineers when they were not qualified Registered Professional Engineers.”

Minder & Associates Engineering Corporation requested signed notarized statements of the professional opinions of each member of the Selection Committee in their ranking of Minder & Associates Engineering Corporation based on the written Proposal submitted by Minder & Associates Engineering Corporation.Deputy City Administrator Marlon Brown acknowledged John Minder’s information request and provided all information requested except for the notarized statements. Marlon in an April 20, 2012 e-mail to John stated, “As shared with you when you met with me, I stated that our policy did not require that a written and notarized reason from each committee member as to why you were not chosen or short-listed be provided. You stated that this would help you with future proposals. I understood that but I did not feel comfortable doing as you requested. As a courtesy, I shared with you that I would check with the City Attorney’s Office to see if they agreed or disagreed with providing the information. I have done that and unfortunately, the City Attorney agrees that this should not be done. I also shared with you that if you had a problem with our procurement policy that you have the right to share those concerns with the City Commission at any Commission meeting under citizens’ input or you can do so when we bring the revisions to the policy to the City Commission (date to be determined). Sorry that we could not be of further assistance. Have a great weekend.”John did appear before the City Commission and made them aware of his concerns. According to Deputy City Administrator Brown one request for proposal was in fact cancelled because of John’s showing that the specifications were flawed. Marlin also said that no evidence of any collusion or special treatment in this particular bid was found.

Mayor Suzanne Atwell has spoken of an accountable City of Sarasota, FL and City Staff. In the Minder & Associates Engineering Corporation case answering their request was a first step in accountability and transparency. It is fitting and proper for elected officials to be highly sensitive to the citizens they represent.

Citizens like John, you and I must be constantly vigilant of government, its hired staff and appointed committee members colluding to give special treatment to any firm. As government becomes more elitist and arrogant so do staff and appointed committee members. At times it seems staff and committees run roughshod over citizens and businesses without proper oversight by elected officials.

It is the duty of elected city and county officials to protect the property rights of citizens, not abuse them. Accountable means to the people, period.