By John Morton
In a private, behind-closed-doors meeting on Feb. 16, Sarasota Mayor Erik Arroyo and his city manager, Marlon Brown, hosted at Sarasota City Hall a contingency from Siesta Key to discuss the city’s interest in exploring the annexation of the island.
Among the Siesta Key leaders present were Tim Hensey and Tracy Jackson of Save Siesta Key, the group who is seeking incorporation instead of being governed by Sarasota County; Frank Jurenka of the Siesta Key Condominium Council; Mark Spiegel of the Siesta Key Coalition, a group created to fight against the large hotels being planned for the island; and Catherine Luckner and Joyce Kouba of the longstanding Siesta Key Association.
“The meeting went very well and everyone is remaining optimistic and open-minded moving forward,” Arroyo said.
The invitation came after Arroyo told his city commissioners in January that he’d like to begin discussions. On Jan. 4, the Sarasota County Legislative Delegation with a 3-3 vote put a halt for now to Save Siesta Key’s eight-month journey toward hoping to have its bill reach the Florida Legislature.
Arroyo put the matter on his city agenda less than 72 hours after that fateful vote.
But it was state Rep. Fiona McFarland, who is part of the state delegation and represents most of the Key with her territory, who first suggested last fall that Siesta Key consider joining the city before rolling the dice with incorporation. She pointed to the fact that Siesta Key already has several hundred residents in its norther portion — primarily on and near Bay Island — that already is part of the city.
She would later agree to endorse the bill if it reached Tallahassee and voted in favor of it in a losing cause. So, now Save Siesta Key will have to wait until August to resubmit an application, which it has said it plans to do.
After the meeting with Arroyo and Brown, Hensey, who is the new chairman of Save Siesta Key, said “The initial meeting was very preliminary. I think that both parties would describe the meeting as a productive discussion. We focused more on concept versus details.”
The nitty gritty that will likely shape future discussions centers around taxes — Save Siesta Key proposed a .25 mill rate to start its own government, costing residents of a median home (assessed value of about $440,000) just shy of $100 annually.
Meanwhile, the millage rate in the city of Sarasota is 3.13.
“We’ll be doing a lot of listening, and we’ll have an open mind,” said Hensey of the invite when speaking to the Siesta Key Association on Feb. 3. “But I can’t see joining with the city can work from a millage standpoint. It looks to me like there’s a lot more in it for them than us.”
However, thanks to Siesta Key’s combined assessed property values that are approaching $7 billion, Arroyo reports that the city’s mill rate could drop a full point or more if the two entities were to combine through annexation.
Still, it’s a far cry from the .25 mills Save Siesta Key was proposing. Plus, however things shake out, the Key will always have to pay county taxes as well.
Some, including state Rep. Will Robinson who voted against incorporation, have voiced that the low millage rate and a plan for only five employees is unrealistic.
Sarasota Commissioner Hagen Brody agreed, saying after Arroyo’s presentation on Jan. 18 city that “It takes more than five people to put on this meeting.”
The other wild card involves representation. The city is currently under a charter review by a committee that could suggest it have a resident-elected “strong mayor” instead of one that’s chosen each year within the five-person commission, thus shuffling the council seats. Arroyo said in January that there’s a chance a seat could be guaranteed for a Siesta Key resident.
Currently, Siesta Key’s population of 8,915 represents less than 2% of the county’s population. By joining Sarasota, that would climb to more than 16%.
Save Siesta Key members have said they still don’t see that as sufficient but a commission seat could change minds.
All four organizations invited to meet with Arroyo have voiced frustration with decisions made at the county level. Among them, besides the hotels, are the approval of the Siesta Promenade project at the intersection of U.S. 41 and Stickney Point Road, as well as the dredging of Big Pass in order to provide sand to Lido Key.
As for annexation, the process requires two public hearings and a referendum that either involves residents of just the entity pursuing the annexation of another, or one that involves both entities.
Sarasota commissioners said at the Jan. 18 meeting that they would think the best approach, if it gets to that point, would be to include Siesta Key voters.