By John Morton
In fewer than 60 hours after Siesta Key’s bid for incorporation was shot down by the Sarasota County Legislative Delegation on Jan. 4, city of Sarasota Mayor Erik Arroyo placed the topic of annexation of the Key on his city commission agenda.
On Jan. 18, he made a presentation to his commissioners, and one significant comment centered around the notion the city’s charter review committee is considering a shakeup in structure where one of two at-large seats on the commission becomes a four-year mayor, elected by the residents. Currently, the five commission members vote each year among themselves to select a mayor.
As a result, “There’s a possibility a separate district could belong to Siesta Key. It could have a seat on the commission,” Arroyo said.
State Rep. Fiona McFarland, who represents Siesta Key and endorsed the incorporation bill that was rejected, told Save Siesta Key board members at a Sept. 30 meeting that they should consider approaching the city with annexation in mind.
Currently, Siesta Key’s population of 8,915 represents about 2% of Sarasota County, which governs the Key. If part of the city, that would increase to more than 16%,
With or without a commission seat, it could have more say.
“If you incorporated into the city, you’d have a stronger voting block,” McFarland said.
Harry Anand, a board member with Save Siesta Key, informed McFarland that his group was not interested in that — not only because it was still a small percentage of representation, but inheriting the city’s 3.13 mill rate would be a huge tax burden. Save Siesta Key was proposing a .25 mill rate to start a municipality.
Arroyo said the inclusion of Siesta Key, however, could drop the city’s millage rate down to around 2.0, thanks to its roughly $6 billion in assessed property value.
And the mayor said he’s feeling that Save Siesta Key could soften to the idea.
“At first I knew they wouldn’t be crawling to come to the city. It was at first an adamant no,” he said. “Now, I think they’re open to it. I just wanted to start the conversation.”
When notified on Jan. 7 about the annexation topic being listed under “new business” on the city agenda, Save Siesta Key chairman John Davidson said it was the first he’d heard of it being a discussion item.
“That’s news to me,” he said, “and that’s not what we want to do.”
Regarding potential future talks, Sarasota commissioner Liz Alpert said “It’s an excellent idea. Why have them re-create all the things we already created in Sarasota?”
One Siesta Key resident, Lourdes Ramirez, was in attendance to speak on the topic. She recently sued the Sarasota County, which governs Siesta Key, over the approval of a high-density hotel.
“It’s interesting to hear it out,” she said of annexation, warning Arroyo that discussions with Siesta Key citizens will be challenging.
“You’re going to get a lot of angry residents. Like me.”
Commissioner Hagen Brody made note of Ramirez being alone. “It’s a little concerning that this was publicized, but there’s only one resident. This would require a referendum. So, there needs to be a little more excitement,” he said.
Added commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch, “This can’t be against their will. I’m not interested in dragging Siesta Key in kicking and screaming.”
Arroyo said there was no hurry in trying to arrange dialogue with Siesta Key residents.
“We weren’t trying to force annexation today,” he said, “or there would have been 100 people here.”
Instead of spending city money on putting together some sort of presentation or report, the mayor said he’d instead just encourage informal talks with Siesta Key leaders.
Robert Fournier, the city attorney, also suggested that the city wait to see if there’s any outreach from Siesta Key residents, now that they know there’s interest in annexation.
Any annexation process would go as follows:
A feasibility study by Sarasota would be required, proving the ability to provide adequate services; two public hearings would be held; a commission vote would be held; and then a referendum would take place that could be limited to just city residents or both city residents and the residents of the area subject to potential annexation.
The Sarasota commissioners said a referendum that would include both would be the likely scenario.
Currently, several hundred homes in the northern part of Siesta Key — known as Norsota and most of which exist on Bay Island, just over the north bridge — are already part of the city of Sarasota.
In a twist, Anand said that McFarland suggested to him the day after the unsuccessful delegation vote that Save Siesta Key should consider including them in any subsequent incorporation attempt.
The idea of two different mill rates being in play on the same island, had Siesta Key become a town, did not sit well with state Rep. Will Robinson Jr., the delegation chairman, who represents the norther part of the Key.
Because no statute allows for the inclusion of an incorporated area into a non-entity, Anand said, those residents were left out of the application.
However, if they secede from the city, they could be in play.
Anand has noted that many residents on the north end have voiced an interest in being part of a Siesta Key township, but the secession idea “would be a long, complicated process.”
He added, “We always thought we’d maybe bring them in after the fact.”