Manatee County will spend about $250,000 to make repairs to drainage pipes underneath the Cortez East Plaza shopping center that have created several sinkholes in its parking lot and led to flooding of its neighbors.
Bradenton Associates LLC, with Thomas Graner listed as the agent and Mike Lembo as the manager, recently placed the plaza at 705 Cortez Road W. up for sale, asking $17 million. According to corporate records, the company owes about $14 million on its mortgage and has been unable to pay for repairs to the plaza's failing stormwater pipes due to what they said are financial issues.
County officials warned it may not be possible for taxpayers to be reimbursed for the repairs.
Manatee County Code Enforcement Chief Jeff Bowman received permission from commissioners on Tuesday to make the necessary repairs to the pipes, which have rusted away, due to the public safety threat to not only shoppers using the plaza but to surrounding neighborhoods that have experienced flooding because of problems at the shopping center.
Manatee County's stormwater system connects at both ends of the plaza where canals empty into Ware's Creek and the blockage has diverted stormwater into residential areas. Resident Crystal Wood said several homes were significantly damaged in the prior rainy season.
Code enforcement got involved in late 2016 when the property was having sinkhole issues, "And the property owner was making good faith efforts to make repairs and then it just stopped," Bowman said. "That's why we are here today."
Bradenton Associates have been incurring daily fines since last year and are currently up to $7,600. The company also has paid two separate $500 fines ordered by a special magistrate in code enforcement hearings. The county estimates that it will cost about $250,000 just to get the drainage system back to normal flow.
The work will not include returning the parking lot back to normal, and only to get the flow of the stormwater moving again. Work is expected to begin no later than July 1.
"It's unsafe out there," Bowman said. "The parking lot is collapsing because the infrastructure is collapsing. We've tried to communicate with the property owner, but he's indicated that he doesn't have the finances to make the repairs."
Manatee County will pursue reimbursement for the repair costs, either through a lien or a lawsuit.
"We could certainly attempt to compel him to pay with injunctive relief in circiut court, but we are very dubious due to his financial capability to do so," said County Attorney Mitchell Palmer. "We received the title examination last Friday and it's one and quarter (inch) thick, so that should tell you of his financial position."
Palmer said there is a primary mortgage, state tax liens and two construction liens on the current owner that would be paid before the county would be reimbursed.
The infrastructure was built in the late 1960s and the county has no records on file as to whether it went through a county review process. Commissioners agreed that public safety must come first, but wanted to ensure taxpayer funds are protected, if at all possible.
"My office will aggressively pursue any monies owed to this government," Palmer said. "But on the same token, my office does not act foolishly and understands that blood cannot be obtained from a turnip. So it may reach a point where we cannot practically pursue payment but we are nowhere near that point."
County Administrator Ed Hunzeker said the financial issue is a separate matter for the attorney's office.
"The solution for us is to get in and fix the problem," he said.
The total site is 19 acres and plaza occupancy is at almost 85 percent. Constructed originally in the 1960s, there have been building renovations three times in 1983, 1998 and 2016. According to property records, Bradenton Associates LLC has been the owner since 2005.