Candidates’ Forum City of Sarasota City Commission Election District 2 – Audience Questions

Presented by the DSA and DSCA on June 11, 2020

  1. What can be done to make our downtown more vibrant to compete with UTC area where businesses seem to be relocating?

Joe Barbetta: I believe that a quality beautification program with additional street trees and plantings is a start.  Also meeting with the various Merchants and other businesses including the various restaurants to discuss a Storefront Improvement Program to assist in making the businesses more attractive.  Also an ease on the metered parking & Garages, possibly with first 2 hours free or certain periods of the day offering free parking. I’m not in favor of the meters but they are there for now and we must work with them.  Beautiful downtowns are inviting to customers and add to the vibrancy.  For years I’ve advocated a Downtown Trolley circulator to help people move around the downtown area.  It would be beneficial not only to the residents and businesses but also the many tourists who visit and vacation here.  The DSA and the DSCA along with the DID can play an important role in implementing these and other ideas they might have.

Commissioner Liz Alpert: As the Downtown Master Plan has been coming out of the ground, it has created a more vibrant atmosphere downtown, so until the pandemic hit, we were well on our way to being competitive with UTC. However, we have to remember a downtown atmosphere is not the same as a shopping mall. In fact, many people prefer a downtown atmosphere. That’s why many shopping malls even try to recreate a “Main Street” to encourage the kind of vibrancy we have in our downtown.

Last time it was surveyed, we have almost 30,000 jobs downtown. Since the Duany plan was implemented, we have added thousands of residents and many new businesses. Part of the challenge is online purchasing which is affecting all aspects of commerce.

Since the pandemic, we have encouraged and facilitated curbside pick-up, closed streets for restaurants to allow for more outdoor dining, and demonstrated a willingness to be flexible and work with merchants.

Over the years we have done a lot of beautification in the downtown along with sidewalk expansion in some areas.

Donald Patterson: Downton Sarasota is a vibrant city offering, dining, shopping, and a variety of arts and entertainment. The downtown development growth is an indicator that people want to live, work and play in downtown Sarasota.  Much of the new downtown development offers lifestyle amenities incorporating ground-floor retail, dining and entertainment. While downtown Sarasota is vibrant and growing, it has greater potential to offer its residents and visitors more in the way of increased beautification, zoning and safety.  Any future investments would require clear zoning of the Main Street corridor taking into account, noise, parking and traffic. A new Main Street configuration and beautification plan must be incorporated into any future development.

An increased focus on safety and sanitation as it relates to homeless is needed.

  1. What would you do first to cut taxes?

Joe Barbetta: A complete Budget Review to see where unnecessary spending is occurring and immediately end it, including a review of all salaries and freeze or reduce where necessary.  Also look at ways to partner with the County on certain services like IT/Technology along with Economic Development.  Both would provide significant cost savings to the City.  Hold off on any new hires during these difficult times of upcoming revenue shortfalls.  Review the City’s real property inventory and see if any surplus property can be sold and get it onto the tax rolls.  These are just a few of the many ways to keep taxes down or even cut them.  With all the new building that has happened in the City over the past several years there should be a considerable ad valorem property tax revenue coming into the City coffers. That along with increasing property values which translate into increased annual tax collections should certainly ease any financial shortfalls and eliminate any tax increases and possibly eventually lead to tax reduction. At the County during my 8 years as Commissioner we did not raise property taxes and that was also during the recession of ’09-12.

Commissioner Liz Alpert: With the expected budget shortfalls due to the pandemic economy, I don’t think cutting taxes is something that can be considered at the moment. We haven’t had a millage rate increase for several years. As a City we have been conservative regarding reserves and prudent planning for unexpected events. In a bad economy, some of the needs of our residents go up which requires more strain on the City’s resources. Our parks are being used more heavily, police calls have increased, and basic services must continue.

Donald Patterson: My concern is a negative revenue projections for 2021, with large revenue losses due to the COVID-19 impact on local businesses and tourism.  While unfortunate, it also brings an immediate opportunity to closely examine the performance, structure and effectiveness of the city departments in delivering services and to make any needed adjustments.

My private enterprise expertise in “Operational Alignment,” makes me uniquely qualified to deliver operational results and make needed changes. Tough but necessary decisions such as downsizing and realigning departments and organizations to operate more cost effectively and efficiently requires the objectivity, experience and leadership that has helped me succeed in a number of business, civic and philanthropic efforts.

Future economic recovery that would produce increased city income, offers the opportunity to eliminate excessive fees and fines and make sound and substantial investments in needed city projects.

Property and sales tax rates are fixed for the long-term and, when properly managed, will contribute to a greater quality of life for all city residents.

  1. What do you propose to do with the homeless population North Sarasota and areas within the City other than Downtown?

Joe Barbetta: There was a potential solution back in 2012-13 when the City brought in Dr. Robert Marbut, an expert, and his thorough Report proposed some excellent solutions and the County was ready to partner with the City and assist but the City Commission and Administration rejected it all.  That should probably be revisited along with working closely with the various Social Service Agencies and other Non-Profits, along with the County Sheriff and City Police, all of whom fully understand the problems and concerns.  Collaboration with all of them and the County could lead to a feasible resolution.

Commissioner Liz Alpert: The homeless population, no matter where they are in the City, are being treated the same. Our Homeless Outreach Team makes contact with them to educate them about the services being offered. They continue to make contact them offering encouragement to take advantage of the services. If there is criminal behavior, then they enforce our laws. When I was elected in 2015, the homeless count was 1106. This year it is 335. We have made tremendous strides by employing these methods, along with housing first, and partnering with other agencies and even the courts to take humane action to solve this problem as much as possible. We will never get everyone off the streets, but our efforts have been moving us in the right direction.

We also have to remember that the homeless in the County are brought to the City because most of the services for the homeless are in the City. Providing more funding for mental health would go a long way toward preventing homelessness.

Donald Patterson: Sarasota’s homeless issues have been a concern and something that I have worked to address as an invested local business leader and city resident.  I am committed to addressing and correcting the current homeless encampments throughout the city with sustainable solutions.

As a community, we must develop programs that go beyond homeless shelters, and address the more challenging underlying problems of mental illness and addiction.

I am developing a homeless strategy called “We Care,” enrolling the city’s non-profit organizations with the expertise needed to address the root causes and challenges.

The “We Care” initiative enrolls the community of homeless advocates and non-profit organizations to provide services in their area of expertise: e.g. human-trafficking, veterans, mental disorders, drug/ alcohol addiction, chronically unemployable, etc.  Through grants and direct payments, services can be provided starting with identification, assessment, shelter, and return to health.

The city must initiate code enforcement actions to encourage homeless populations to participation in these services. It will take both code enforcement and forceful leadership to push the limits, without encroaching in civil liberties, enrolling the most resistant into a path of participation and successful rehabilitation. The current unsafe and unsanitary encampments all over Sarasota are untenable and are detrimental to our community and those impacted.

  1. What is your position regarding the reduction of police forces?

Joe Barbetta: I don’t think it is a good idea at this time.  The City force already has fewer officers (163) than are currently budgeted (179) and it’s becoming more and more difficult to recruit good people to enter Law Enforcement.  Also with many retirements, a lot of the historical knowledge and experience is disappearing.  Public Safety is of utmost importance to City residents.  It is incumbent on the Commissioners to foster and encourage accountability of the City Manager and the Police Chief to have a well trained Police Department with the proper Administrative Policies and Culture.

Commissioner Liz Alpert: I don’t know if reduction of police forces is what is called for. I think it is more a reimagining of the role of the police force. We need police to deal with criminal behavior. But, for example, do we need the police to respond to a call where one parent is denying visitation to another parent. Perhaps that response should be with more of a team much like our Homeless Outreach Team where we partner an officer with a trained social worker. However, there would need to be specially trained social workers because domestic situations are often highly volatile. I also believe that more emphasis on community policing is the best policy. Our Chief DiPino has been implementing that and has begun this reimagining to help get at the root cause of crime.

Donald Patterson: As an Honorary Deputy with Hillsborough County Sherriff Department, I have immense respect for the officers and the Sherriff. I would bring the same respect and dedication to ensuring an efficient and effective Sarasota City Police Department. We must have a well-trained and well-equipped police force. All citizens must feel the Police department is doing an exceptional job keeping them safe, and we must eliminate fear from the minds of our most vulnerable citizens.  A decision about any force in reduction must be made only after a thorough assessment of efficiency and effectiveness in meeting community safety.

My experience in understanding Organizational Alignment for the efficient delivery of services enables me to assess responsive police leadership to Sarasota citizens. An extensive departmental inquiry would examine current expenses and efficiency. Uncovering the biggest expenses, e.g. vehicles and payroll, as well as shift length and how well our police are building positive community relations. The goal is to make all everyone – our most vulnerable citizens to our visitors- feel safer.

Ideas such as a 24-hour foot patrols in downtown would demonstrate visible police presence. I envision more officers walking beats, and more bike patrols in Downtown, Rosemary, Lido, North Trail, New Town and other areas where citizens request more visible security and police presence.

If the department leadership does not want to be responsive to certain commission requests such as downtown patrols or citations, then budget amounts could be transferred to a task force for that purpose.

  1. What are your feelings about the defeat of the Orchestra’s plan for Payne Park?

Joe Barbetta: I think it’s very unfortunate.  Some on the City Commission don’t seem to fully comprehend the tremendous importance of our Arts and Cultural Institutions. We are blessed here in Sarasota and these Organizations not only enrich our Community culturally, but they also employ a great many very talented people along with being a critical component to our economic base.

Commissioner Liz Alpert: This was a huge disappointment for me. Our Orchestra has been a part of Sarasota for 70 years. They spent over two years reviewing all available locations in the City. For various reasons, the only location that works for them is a small part of Payne Park. This is a 39-acre park. The Orchestra only needed 7 of those acres. The only disruption to the park would be the need to move the tennis courts which were to be re-built in another portion of the park, at the Orchestra’s expense, in an area that gets little use and one pond which could be created again in another portion of the park. The City actually owns two acres adjacent to the park that could be incorporated which would result in Orchestra only taking five acres of the Park. Nothing else in the Park would be disturbed.

The Orchestra’s current location is in the planned 75-acre Bay project. They would be vacating 4-5 acres there which will become new park on the Bay in exchange for 5-7 acres in Payne Park.

The Payne Park location would enhance that Park. It would activate that part of town which is dead in the evenings. Expose the Park to more people. Create a walkable destination for free concerts in the park. The benefits of far outweigh any potential detriment.

One of the things that sets us apart from every other beach community is that we are also an arts community. It is important for us to retain our cultural assets in order to maintain that important distinction.

Donald Patterson: Sarasota is known for its support and love of the arts. We have world-class and renown organizations such as the Orchestra. Their location and accessibility is unique, with exceptional venues that elevate the city’s quality of life and draw patrons from within our community and surrounding areas.

I believe Sarasota arts should be centrally and conveniently located in the existing downtown district, adding to the city’s vibrancy and economy.  Having dining and shopping foot-traffic day and evening combined with existing parking is great leverage. This downtown formula leverages our existing infrastructure and businesses. Payne Park did not have the infrastructure and walkability.

My plan for the zoning of Main Street allows for greater possibilities for the Orchestra and other performing arts.

  1. How do you feel about the proposed Selby Gardens parking garage and other expansion?

Joe Barbetta: I have not had an opportunity to review the latest proposal that I believe has been preliminarily submitted to City Staff but I do feel that it merits thorough review and consideration along the lines of what I mentioned in my prior answer in Question 5.  Selby is an incredible asset and we need to work with them in reaching their goals and helping in the implementation of their Plan.  Once City Staff has reviewed it and made their findings then the Commissioners will have their opportunity to review for compliance and to listen to all parties involved and engage in thorough deliberation prior to the final decision, thus following the proper process.

Commissioner Liz Alpert: I am on record as being in support of the Selby Gardens parking garage. The current zoning allows for a parking garage at the location. The only difference is that they wanted to make it taller than the zoning allows which would make the garages footprint smaller than for a shorter garage.  The project included beneficial intersection upgrades to the intersection at Orange and Mound. These upgrades would aid in the traffic issues at that intersection.

The Selby project would have freed up 50% more green space on the property and upgraded the building which store the valuable plant collections. The inclusion of a restaurant is also currently allowed on the property during the operation of the Gardens. This would have merely allowed for the restaurant to be open hours other than just during the Gardens operating hours. So, any additional traffic would be offset by the lessened traffic of the Gardens not being open. The roof top location of the restaurant would have allowed for a stunning, panoramic view of the Gardens and the bay without causing disturbance to the neighborhood.

Donald Patterson: Selby Gardens is an incredible treasure for our community and great attraction for visitors. It is important to ensure its viability and preserve it for future generations. We need to preserve Selby Gardens’ heritage, while preparing it to remain relevant in today’s world. Any expansion must meet the needs of the community, and Selby’s financial solvency and future.

  1. Bath and Racquet seems about to present a new development plan – what do you think of this effort?

Joe Barbetta: Infill Redevelopment is important in a Community.  When done properly it can help improve not only the area it is on but also the surrounding areas, thus increasing the property values and quality of life.  The original Bath and Racquet Club has been around for a long time and I think that a newly submitted redevelopment plan is encouraging and worthy of a thorough review and consideration.

Commissioner Liz Alpert: I was in support of their first effort. I think it is a good use of the property which preserves the historic club and was going to create a 1,000 less vehicle trips per day than would occur if what is currently allowed under the zoning there were developed.

The developer of the project did exactly what we want developers to do was meet with the surrounding neighborhood early on to address their concerns. As a result, the developer changed their plan to have less impact on the neighbors and, I think, creating a better plan. But, all of that effort went for naught. I don’t know what the new project will look like, so I can’t weigh in until I see, but I do think mixed use there would be what I would want to see.

Donald Patterson: Smart new development opens a path to upgraded infrastructure, new sidewalks, bike lanes, streetlights, possibility for affordable housing, and combating rising housing cost pressure with added inventories.  I am a proponent for well-planned and reasoned development of the proper scale and density into our existing neighborhoods.

  1. There has been much discussion about the proper form of government, with opinions on both sides; the track record of the commission’s decision making is not good: parking meters on, off, then on again; the Lido Beach casino lease then non-lease; there are many more, but the Lift Station is the monument to poor decision making and project management. Along the way we have incurred legal fees and damages paid by the city. What would you do to improve on this record of poor decision making and mismanagement?

Joe Barbetta: Demand complete Financial Accountability an Transparency, both of which have been sorely lacking for many years.  The Commission needs to be stronger, they are the Policy Makers not the Administration.  They should know everything of importance that is going on and they should know the costs and financial exposure along with the effects on the Public.  The Meters have been a fiasco over the years and as to Lift Station 87 it is truly the poster child for Government mismanagement.  It goes all the way back to 2009-10 when the discussions started.  Estimated originally at about $10 to $12 million with an 18 to 24 month completion date and here we are in 2020 and the Project is at least 500% over budget now and is rapidly approaching a cost of $75 million along with several lawsuits.  Completion is now pushed off to 2021, about 11 years behind schedule.  Furthermore roads and a bridge have been closed again for an extended period of time inconveniencing neighborhoods and the traveling public.  Total mismanagement and lack of Financial Accountability by the Administration and some of the City Staff.  The buck stops with the City Commission!!!

Commissioner Liz Alpert: Unfortunately, once on the Commission, there are some past actions that can’t be undone. When I got on the Commission, the fiasco of the Lift Station had already occurred. The only thing to be done at that point was to move forward and make decisions that would complete the project in the best way possible. The project is currently on time and on generally on budget.

In any form of government, when the makeup of that government changes, there are often changes in the direction of the government. Whether you have a Mayor/Commission form of government or a Commission/City Manager form of government, there can be occasions when poor decisions and mismanagement can occur. I don’t have a preference for one or the other. But one has to remember Mayors are not autonomous. They still have to implement the City Council’s directives as the policy making branch of government. The biggest difference I see is that a Mayor has more of a bully pulpit than a City Manager, so has the ability to put pressure on the City Council to go along with their policies. It does not guarantee that there will be no poor decisions or mismanagement.

However, this question pre-supposes that the City is consistently making poor decisions and it is mismanaged. I don’t agree with that premise. Let’s talk about the parking meters. A previous Commission decided to do parking meters. For whatever reason, it was poorly done with parking meters that were difficult for the public to use. They decided to then remove them. When it came time to consider parking meters again, the subsequent Commission took the lessons from the first attempt and went about the implementation in a more positive way. The result has been a success. Parking is not free. The City was looking at a budget shortfall in the parking department of $600,000.00. You can choose to have the people who actually use the parking pay or you ask everyone else to pay. It should be noted that the parking meters downtown are only 11% of the available parking spaces. There is not charge for 89% of the public spaces in our downtown.

On St. Armands the businesses and residents came to the City and asked that parking meters be installed to pay for a much-needed parking garage. So, the meters on St. Armands are a direct result of that.

The Lido Pavilion decision was also not the result of poor decisions and mismanagement. This started in 2012 when the Lido Key Residents Association came to the City Commission with a plan for what they would like to see at the Lido Pavilion which was in disrepair when the management of it was transferred to the City from the County. This proposal from the LKRA recommended that the entire facility should be managed by one entity. This proposed plan came in the middle of the last recession, so it wasn’t feasible for the City to fund the entire project. In light of that, the City pursued a public/private partnership (generally considered as a fiscally responsible way to pay for improvements) to make the improvements. The City then issued an Intent to Negotiate to find a private entity to do the improvements for which the City would lease the property to them to manage. The only entity that stepped up to the plate to do the project was a partnership between Troy Syprett and Gavin Meshad (local residents who grew up in Sarasota.) The project was awarded to them in 2014. (I was elected to the Commission in May 2015.) So, when I was elected, this project was already ongoing.

The partnership created a site plan that mimicked the site plan that the LKRA had developed. But there began to be an immediate pushback from the LKRA that it now was not what they wanted. So, the partners had numerous community meetings, answered any questions or concerns, and continued to make change to the plans which reflected the concerns of the residents attending the meetings.

The City and the partnership negotiated a lease taking into consideration that the partnership was going to be spending $2-3 million dollars of their own money to make the improvements and renovations.

All the while, there continued to be pushback from the residents whose main concern seemed to be who was doing the project, not as much what was being done, because one of the partners is a part owner of the Daiquiri Deck. Petitions were circulated opposing the project. Public hearings resulted in dozens of residents coming to oppose the project. The partners finally decided they just didn’t want to keep fighting. It was not a result of poor decisions or mismanagement.

We are only community to get funding for beach renourishment that is 2/3 being funded by State and Federal government.

Wallet hub just rated Sarasota as the 6th best beach town in the country and we are the 18th best city to live in according to U.S. News and World Report. 80% of the tourists who come to our area, come to the City.

Our parks have improved dramatically. We’ve adopted a climate adaptation plan. We have been recognized as one of the best cities in the State for sustainability efforts.

We have a hard-working, talented, dedicated staff.

Our budget department consistently wins award for excellence. We have high bond rating due to our fiscal management.

Donald Patterson: The current commission finds themselves embroiled in performance questions. Sarasota requires a revitalized commission to address our many challenges. My decision to enter the race for District 2 City Commissioner, was the result of my belief that this great city deserves a more responsive and intelligent government.

I am deliberately self-funding my campaign with a commitment of $100,000.00, with a determination to win on my own merit and money. I refuse to accept any contributions that may in any way influence future policy or decisions. I will not accept contributions from a political action committee (PAC) money, NO Special Interest (developer) money and NO donations. My goal is to serve the needs of the citizens of this great city.

I am establishing a network of neighborhood and small business owner “Advisory Boards” to represent the interests for every neighborhood and business district. The advisory representative will act as advocates for business and neighborhood concerns and will work with me to make prudent decisions on behalf of constituents.

I have 34 years of business experience in the field of Communications from small to large business with an expertise in “Organizational Alignment” to deliver world-class customer service. I am co-founder and CEO of Ascend Wireless Networks and build the Cellular Network for the nation’s largest wireless carriers. I serve as Chairman of the Board for Big Brother and Big Sisters of the Suncoast where we steward over 1800 of the region’s most economically and socially disadvantaged youth. Through a one-to-one mentorship, we work with each child on education and life challenges so that these boy and girls grow up to an empowered future. I am committed to this community and currently serving to make a difference.  I pledge that, if elected, I will make great decisions for the citizens I serve with no special interest influence. I am a Florida native with a family that has resided here for over 95 years.

I am proud to call Sarasota my home and am grateful to live in a city known for its culture, arts and environmental beauty. I have a passion to preserve, protect and sustainably grow our community.

  1. What should the city’s role be in helping keep arts organizations in the city and helping to promote their long-term viability?

Joe Barbetta: As I mentioned in my answer to Question #5, the City Commissioners need to gain a better understanding of our incredible Arts & Cultural Organizations. They are central to the City’s and County’s economic well-being in attracting tourism, employing large numbers of extremely talented people, and they work with our local Schools with programming for the students.  These Organization truly enhance our culture with world class performance, display, beauty and knowledge.  During my tenure as a County Commissioner I continually encouraged working with and assisting these Organization and we worked closely with Jim Shirley and the Arts & Cultural Alliance.  We truly understood their value including the huge Economic Impact they provide to the Community in addition to all their other incredible attributes.

Commissioner Liz Alpert: I believe the City has a huge role in helping to keep our arts organizations in the City and promote their long-term viability. I think the City should do what it can, within reason, to provide a climate to facilitate their efforts to stay in the City.

Our cultural institutions have a tremendous economic impact. As I said in a previous answer, our arts community is what sets us apart from every other beach town.

We’ve created a public arts program. But, post-pandemic, we need to help our arts community get back on their feet. One of the things the City could do is help provide venues for safe performances and perhaps waive or reduce some fees.

Donald Patterson: The city of Sarasota is synonymous with The Arts. While I am not advocating for operational funding, I do see a possibility for smaller grants directly related to our youth’s education of the arts. In a larger role for the city, I envision property leases that favor non-profit art organizations over private enterprise or usage contracts of multi-purpose facilities owned by the city. I am open to the city taking on a new multi-purpose facility in the downtown district to support the performing arts.

  1. Do you believe the City needs to act now to address its unfunded pension liability?

Joe Barbetta: Yes. It is imperative that the new Commission make this a priority and address it head on.  All alternatives and potential solutions need to be explored.  It might behoove the Commission to impanel a small group of CPAs with expertise in this area along with Pension Consultants to do a thorough review and provide viable recommendations and proposed solutions for review and consideration.

Commissioner Liz Alpert: The City’s unfunded pension liability is being handled. This is not something that has to be funded one hundred percent. It is like a mortgage where you make monthly payments and at some point, it is paid off. We are on track to do just that. The police pension is funded at 75% currently.

During my tenure we’ve reduced it by $100 million dollars. We’ve saved this by modernizing retiree health care.

Donald Patterson: I feel the city commission must carefully review everything in the budget.  All things are on the table for change. I have the experience, conviction and confidence to make tough decisions.