PALM HARBOR – Board members of the Palm Harbor Community Service Agency, or PHCSA, expressed a newfound confidence in their relationship with Pinellas County March 19 – enough to request renegotiated contracts for the buildings they lease from the overseeing government.
“I think the climate at the county has changed, I do. That’s my instinct,” said Erica Lynford, director Palm Harbor Parks and Recreation, one of the three entities the agency oversees.
Lynford had a long meeting with Mark Woodard, county administrator chief of staff. From that, she shared a number of positive signs that county representatives are receptive to changes in how the PHCSA board operates, changes that that agency has asked for before, to no avail.
“We’ve gone there so many times asking for reasonable things and we’ve been turned down,” said PHCSA attorney Andy Salzman, warning the board members to be realistic about their expectations.
However, signs of positive change come from other quarters as well. The renewed relations began when the representatives from the agency began to schedule meetings with the county commissioners about two years ago, with the objective of sharing with commissioners the challenges and successes of the agency ahead of the budget process. This year, those meetings were helped by greater turnout from the board members of the agency, said Palm Harbor Library Director Gene Coppola.
It’s one thing for the meetings to be attended by Coppola, Lynford and East Lake Community Library Director Lois Eannel, he said.
“It’s another thing to have board members take valuable volunteer time … to come,” he explained. “I think it’s been very helpful because it sets the stage for when the three of us make our budget presentations in May.”
Coppola said that during one of those meetings, he shared with Commissioner Karen Seel the library’s proactive efforts to raise the $400,000 needed to replace the roof and five air-conditioning units by 2020 or sooner.
“We’re hoping to get to that point, but we may only get there halfway. I suggested to the commissioner that perhaps the county could meet us halfway, and she said that was a very good idea. It shows that locally we’re trying to do half of it,” Coppola said.
The PHSCA agency has had some ongoing problems in trying to identify who is responsible for the maintenance of the buildings, which the agency leases from the county for its libraries and parks and recreation activities. The agreement between the two entities does not specify how the buildings should be maintained.
Most recently, the East Lake library has asked the county to help pay to fix the parking lot, which Eannel wanted to repave when she was hired in September. However, the parking lot has a significant drainage issue stemming from a bad pipe installation project in 2011.
The library paid about $2,600 for a civil engineering study to define the problems. Eannel has sent various letters to county representatives to resolve the issue, but to no avail.
“At this point, we’re back to square one, unless I hear otherwise,” she reported to the board March 19.
PHCSA chairman Rex Haslam said he was drafting a letter to County Administrator Bob LaSala, asking him to “consider negotiating every one of our leases for our properties.”
“Within that renegotiation, (we‘ll) talk about county support of helping to fund the maintenance and upkeep of these county-owned facilities that we are running and budgeting to maintain,” Haslam said.
The timing is particularly appropriate because the agency is already in the process of negotiating lease agreements for two buildings of which it only recently took over the operation: the wedding and event venues called White Chapel and Harbor Hall. So far, the proposed contract includes a clause outlining maintenance, repairs and services.
According to a current draft of the lease, the county would be responsible for the “roof, windows, exterior walls, and the structural flooring” of the two buildings, while the agency would take on maintenance of “plumbing, electrical, HVAC, telecommunication wiring and installation, floor coverings, bearing and non-bearing interior walls, landscaping, site drainage, and parking lots.”
Haslam added that within the potential renegotiation process the agency is interested in piggybacking onto the county’s insurance policy, which the agency has similarly not made any positive headway on in the past. The county has argued that the agency is separate enough from its operations for that to be possible.
“The fallacy of the argument is that if something happened tomorrow and you didn’t have enough insurance converge, it’s the county’s building, so they’re responsible for taking care of it, which is the argument we’ve made,” Salzman said. “I think if you could, it would be wonderful.”
Lynford said the timing was right to ask.
“I think the iron’s hot,” Lynford said. “And I think the commissioner visits have led well into opening that door.”
Salzman agreed with the assessment.
“We couldn’t get our foot in the door before,” he said. “You have a different relationship now. I think we were considered the outsider that they didn’t want to deal with.”
Lynford added later that her meeting with Woodard had another positive outcome: PHSCA facilities might be in line to inherit some equipment that the county is replacing with newer models. The parks and recreation computer labs in particular is very outdated.
“He thinks he has newer computers,” Lynford said. “That’s huge. Those things never happen.”