By Robert Frederickson
For the first time since 1998, Nora Patterson’s name will not be on the ballot this fall to fill the District Four seat on the Sarasota County Commission. As was the case with former commissioner John Thaxton, the decision not to run again was not up to the popular Republican; instead, it came about as a result of term limits.
Two of the Republican Candidates hoping to replace Patterson on the commission, Alan Maio and Lourdes Ramirez will square off in the Republican primary on August 26th. The winner will face the Democratic candidate Ray Porter in the general election this November.
Siesta Sand interviewed Maio and Ramirez recently to help voters get a sense of where they stand on some of the issues in the news recently, as well as to learn about their backgrounds and experience.
Each candidate was asked the same general questions. Alan Maio’s interview was conducted in person on Siesta Key, while Lourdes Ramirez was unable to meet face-to-face due to prior commitments, instead e-mailing us her responses to our questions that had been forwarded in advance.
Q: Homelessness: Commissioner Nora Patterson recently said that the county’s partnership with the city – while not broken – is wobbly. Do you support Robert Marbut’s approach to addressing homelessness in Sarasota County, and specifically his plan for a come-as-you-are shelter near downtown Sarasota and satellite facilities in South County? If not, what direction would you support in dealing with this issue?
Lourdes: Homelessness is a complex problem that will require a variety of solutions. Focusing on one solution will not solve the problem. The plan to help the homeless should be broken down into smaller projects that can be handled by various agencies both public and private. The county should work with existing not-for-profits on helping the homeless.
There is a serious lack of affordable apartments in the county. We need to find areas that are suitable for higher densities in order to create much needed affordable housing. As for the ‘come as you are’ shelter, it needs further study but I strongly believe the Sheriff’s opinion on this proposal would be an important factor in the final decision.
Follow-up Q: Based on his performance to date, would you continue the county’s consulting relationship with Marbut?
Lourdes: Mr. Marbut provided detailed information so far and I believe we no longer need to continue the consulting contract. We can use the recommendations he provided and work with our local not-for-profit agencies to implement some of his ideas.
Q: Did you support County Administrator Harmer’s firing of former Ethics Coordinator Steve Uebelacker this past March after he opened a review of an ethics complaint made against a sitting commissioner? Do you believe the county needs an ethics coordinator?
Lourdes: Mr. Uebelacker was obviously doing his job in raising ethical concerns regarding a county commissioner and should not have been fired. The county needs an ethics coordinator to handle county employee concerns. We also need an independent Ethics Commission that would handle ethics complaints of elected officials. The Ethics Commission should be created under our charter and be an elected body.
Q: What do you feel is the primary issue facing the county at this point in time?
Lourdes: Fiscal responsibility and accountability: Sarasota County faces a deficit in 2017 with a long list of unfunded major capital projects. We need to tighten budgets and not spend money frivolously. We need to focus on core government functions such as repaving roads and replacement of our Sheriff/Fire communication system. We should also expect buyers to pay full market price for county lands (NO steep discounts for special interests!).
Q: What personal and professional qualities, experience and credentials would you bring to the county commission that you feel would enhance its work on behalf of the citizens of District Four and Sarasota County?
Lourdes:With an MBA from Iona College, I have worked for Fortune 500 companies where I developed a reputation of solving difficult business problems. I also owned small businesses. With my business experience, I will work on how we can diversify our economy to bring long term high paying careers for our residents. My decisions as a County Commissioner will be a balance between our need to grow as a community and the need to ensure our quality of life does not suffer.
Since 2003, I’ve been active in civic organizations and I am currently president of CONA. I was on the board of the Siesta Key Association for 9 years (5 as president). As a citizen advocate, I was engaged in the total rewrite of our zoning code in 2003 and various amendments of our Comprehensive plan. I’ve worked with a variety of neighborhood and civic organizations on land use issues and government accountability.
My strong civic involvement in Sarasota and business experience will be an asset to the Sarasota County Commission.
Q: Are you in favor of the Corp of Army Engineers dredging the Big Pass Shoal?
Lourdes: I’m not in favor of the Army Corp of Engineers proposal to dredge Big Pass Shoal. The beaches of Lido Key need renourishment but I believe there has not been enough research for sand sources other than Big Pass Shoal. The proposed Army Corp of Engineer project includes 2 navigation channels instead of one, a large hole in the shoal and a plan to dredge the shoal for 50 years. This proposal seems to be overly ambitious and may hurt Siesta Key in the long run.
Q: Do you support the county’s business development efforts in which publicly financed incentives are offered to lure businesses to the area?
Lourdes: The County’s economic development program had a poor start with the failure of some businesses which received financial incentives to generate any jobs. The County has improved their criteria that created a stronger link to job creation with financial incentives. At the end of the recession, this program was viewed as necessary to stimulate the economy. As our economy improves, we should focus our efforts to generate jobs by having one of the lowest property taxes in the state with great schools, good roads and other high quality of life standards.
Follow up Q: If so, how would you respond to critics of such efforts, who point to such well publicized failures as the Sanborn Studio deal? How would you proceed to make sure businesses that were offered such incentives live up to their end of the bargain?
Lourdes: For those businesses who received financial incentives and have not generated jobs, the County should have a claw back clause in the contract that requires the business to pay back the incentives. A lien on property may help ensure the incentive monies are returned to the taxpayers.
Q:As county revenues increase due to the recent and continuing recovery of the real estate market, do you favor a return to pre-recession staffing and service levels or a lowering of millage rates for homeowners? Are there any areas of the county’s budget that you see as being underfunded? Are there any areas that in your view should be looked at for additional cost cutting?
Lourdes: With new technology and management efficiencies, the County does not need to return to pre-recession staffing levels. We need to keep our tax millage rate low and increasing government staff will only add to the taxpayers’ burden. The County has underfunded road resurfacing projects and has several important underfunded capital projects including a new communication system for the Sheriff’s and Fire Departments. The Sheriff’s and Fire Departments have a communication system that is 16 years old and needs to be upgraded. There are government service areas that can be reviewed for cost cutting. One idea for cost reduction is converting County medians from using grass to Florida native plants. By removing the grass in our medians, we can cut down on the amount of mowing costs.
Q: Do you have any ideas on how to address the shortage of parking spaces in the Siesta Key Village?
Lourdes: For over a decade, there has been a 400 parking shortage in Siesta Key Village and it’s a difficult challenge to overcome. There are no commercial properties available to use for additional parking. The new SCAT bus service should bring additional visitors to Siesta Key Village. One idea can be to allow office buildings that are empty at night to charge a minimal cost for parking so visitors can dine and enjoy the nightlife.
Q: In closing, what one thing would you like voters to know about you before they cast their vote in the upcoming primary?
Lourdes: I will be a County Commissioner who will value our citizens’ opinions and will be a citizen advocate. As a fiscal conservative, I will work hard on keeping our government spending under control. I’m the only County Commission candidate who decided to avoid paying the $5,000 filing fee by obtaining over 3,000 signatures on petitions to get my name on the ballot. This proves that I will be a hard working public servant who is interested in saving money while working with citizens to get the job done.
As a citizen advocate for the past 12 years, I’m passionate about Sarasota and enthusiastic about our future.
Siesta Sand: Thank You Lourdes Ramiriz
Q: Mr. Maio, what personal and professional qualities, experience and credentials would you bring to the county commission that you believe would enhance its work on behalf of the citizens of district four?
Maio: “I’ve been here for thirty years. I’ve run successful businesses. I started a vacation rental business; I’ve built two successful restaurants. I’ve also built up a very large engineering firm. I’ve served on the Sarasota County planning commission, the code enforcement board, the board of zoning appeals. The governor appointed me to the Southwest Florida Regional Planning Council. I’ve also served on a number of local boards: the Venice Chamber of Commerce, Nokomis Fire Department, Goodwill Manasota, Sarasota Chamber of Commerce and others. I’m an accountant and also an AICP certified planner.” Editor’s Note: AICP is the American Institute of Certified Planners.
Q: What do you believe is the most important issue facing the county today?
Maio: “Jobs. Everything comes back to jobs. We’re seeing green shoots in the local economy. But it’s fragile. We have to keep it going. As an accountant, and a business owner, I know what’s involved. As the saying goes, I’ve signed both sides of a paycheck.
We need to make it clear throughout this region – and out of state too – that this is a county that treats businesses fairly. That we’ll handle their permitting quickly and that this area is not opposed to new business coming in, bringing jobs. For a long time, we’ve had a reputation as a difficult place to do business. I’ve heard people say, ‘you folks are tough over there. I’m not sure I’d want to relocate my business there.’ But we’ve made great strides to change that. We’ve got a great advantage here. CEOs, business owners visit here. They love it. We need to build on our advantages so they choose to settle here.”
Q. So following up on that, do you support the county’s business development efforts in which publicly financed incentives are offered to lure businesses to the area?
Maio: “I’ll say this. I think you have to be very careful. When I built my vacation rental business and restaurants I never asked for any money. Now, can you cleverly spend money to lure out-of-state businesses? Yes. Just look at what Hillsborough has done landing an Amazon regional warehouse and other projects.
But as I said, you have to be careful. I’ve heard a number of 1600 new jobs added (in Sarasota county). But I also know of at least two cases where companies helped later went out of business and we didn’t recoup the bucks.
Follow-up Q: So what can be done to avoid those instances – like Sanborn Studio – where the businesses don’t hold up their end of the bargain?
Maio: “Well, one thing is, you can give the help as the jobs appear. Not in advance.”
Q: Turning to some of the issues that have been in the news recently, Commissioner Patterson was recently quoted as saying that the partnership between the city of Sarasota and the county to address the problems associated with homelessness “while not broken, is wobbly.” Do you support Robert Marbut’s approach to dealing with the homeless in Sarasota county and specifically, his recommendation for a come-as-you-are shelter near downtown and satellite facilities in south county?
Maio: When the city and county hired Marbut he got unanimous approval from both city commissioners and county commissioners. In his report he laid out a whole bunch of criteria, which I think everybody agreed with. But his report did not designate where it (the main shelter) should go. Some people – not elected officials – but some people have said it should go east of I-75. I don’t think that at all. To paraphrase, I think Marbut said that it should be within a mile or so of the major services the homeless use and need. But we have to be careful about where we put it. It’s problematic. You just can’t drop it into someone’s backyard or by a school without getting the support of residents.
Marbut also said people should stop giving out handouts or free-food because that’s not solving anything. Look, my heart goes out to the family that’s living in a car, a single Mom with a bunch of kids. But one size doesn’t fit all. Part of it is a mental health issue too.
We absolutely have to help people. But we have to help the people who want to be helped.
Follow-up Q: Based on Marbut’s performance to date, would you continue the county’s consulting relationship with him?
Maio: “Yes. It’s a tough issue. But I think the recent focus on it is a positive step.”
Q. Another item in the news from earlier in the year concerns ethics in government. Did you support County Administrator Harmer’s firing of county ethics coordinator Steve Uebelacker this past March after he opened a review of an ethics complaint involving a county commissioner?
Maio: “I’ve never met Steve Uebelacker, so I’ve had no interaction with him. My understanding is that the position ended when Karen Rushing (County Clerk) put in an inspector general to handle those responsibilities. It’s also my understanding that the former role that Uebelacker had did not have the authority to look into an elected official like a commissioner.
I think the way the position is now constructed is the right way to go. By law, investigating elected officials is up to the state ethics commission.”
Q: Would you make any changes to the way the county collects and distributes bed tax revenues, especially as relates to major engines of local tourism like the beaches on Siesta and promotion of the arts countywide?
Maio: “I think the current setup – and it was recently tweaked – works extremely well. For my money, I think the parks department has done a great job keeping up the look, the appearance of what brings tourists here. The Tourist Development Council and Visit Sarasota, I think they do a great job too.”
Q: Turning to your philosophy on the budget, as county revenues have increased due to the recent and continuing recovery of the local real estate market, do you philosophically favor a return to pre-recession county staffing and spending levels or a lowering of millage rates for homeowners?
Maio: “This is all about me being an accountant. We’ve had 13 years of the millage rate staying flat or being reduced. We’re now in a period where (property appraiser) Bill First said assessed values in the county rose 4 percent last year. This June I think he said 6.5 percent. So gross taxes are growing in answer to part A of your question.
Part B is this: I think you only put staff on when you absolutely need them. However, a lot of staff – especially in building and development services – as I understand it – are paid for by permit fees. So as more stuff gets built, they’re going to be able to hire additional staff without having to hit the taxpayers.
I guess the last thing I’d say is that I want the reserves to be built up, for emergencies…as a rainy day fund…what in the private sector we’d call contingencies. That’s important.
I think the county has done one hell of a job over the last 10-15 years, even while reducing taxes, really bulking up the reserves so when things slowed for three or four years, there was a way to continue balancing the budget without raising taxes.”
Q: Looking to Siesta Key: for the first time The Army Corps of Engineers has recommended harvesting sand from the Big Pass Shoal off Siesta to replenish sand on Lido Key. And this use could extend for up to 50 years. Are you in favor of this?
Maio: “Let me answer this way. Lido Beach absolutely needs to be renourished. But I’m not going to do anything to hurt Siesta. Once we get the Army Corps’ final report, then we need to get an engineering firm to do a peer review.
Follow-up Q: The Army Corps of Engineers has their own group of engineering firms it call on. The appearance is that those firms know what the corps wants to hear and consequently rubber-stamp their plans.
Maio: The review has to be independent peer review. Not one of those firms.
Q: Have you looked into the problem of the lack of parking on Siesta Key, especially here in the Village? There’s continuous ticketing and towing and it gives a very bad impression of the area to those who come to visit.
Maio: “The longer you wait, the harder it gets to fix a problem like this. The problem is not going to go away. The recent redo at Siesta Key Beach, I think we gained a net 143 spaces. That’s a positive. I’ve heard people say to me, we need a parking garage. But that’s problematic, because no one wants to live next door to one. Some of the things that are happening, like the free taxi services, the free shuttle service, those are ways to help. I am familiar with the problem on Siesta. It’s going to be a tough one to solve. I wish we could find a piece of land to build a parking garage, and then have a shuttle run out of that. But finding the right spot won’t be easy. Again, no one wants a parking garage next door. And you’re certainly not going to put it on beach land.”
Q: In closing, what is the one thing you’d like voters to know about you before they cast their vote?
Maio: “That I’ve been here for 30 years. I raised my family here. Contributed to the economic vitality of the area…I’m an accountant by degree and a planner by profession. If there was ever a time for an accountant and a planner to sit on the commission, now is that time.
Siesta Sand: Thank you Mr. Maio.