New delegation member has the swing vote, and all eyes are upon him
By John Morton
He’s only been a member of the Sarasota County Legislative Delegation for a few months, joining the mix by inheriting a small portion of southern Sarasota County due to redistricting.
Nonetheless, Mike Grant suddenly finds himself the most important member of the delegation as far as Save Siesta Key is concerned.
And the good intentions of a non-required straw vote are also causing a bit of anxiety for the incorporation group. It was suggested by the delegation last year, but Save Siesta Key took it upon itself to conduct the poll. Now, the results could mean everything.
At Save Siesta Key’s Dec. 6 public information meeting at Siesta Key Chapel, which drew roughly 200 people, Grant had all eyes on him when it became clear that the absence of state Rep. James Buchanan, who now serves as chairman of the delegation, would be a no vote. He did not attend a similar meeting in December of 2021 and voted no when a 3-3 tie from the delegation shot down the incorporation bill before it could get to the Florida Legislature for consideration.
Now, the two other no votes are gone in the form of state Reps. Will Robinson (last year’s delegation chairman) and Tommy Gregory, also the result of redistricting, leaving the delegation at four members with Grant the newcomer. He joins Buchanan, state Rep. Fiona McFarland (the bill’s sponsor), and state Sen. Joe Gruters (another yes vote) in the ranks.
“We know he’s not going to be a yes,” said Gruters at the meeting of Buchanan.
And that leaves Grant, a Port Charlotte resident who represents District 75.
Which brings us to the straw vote, a non-binding survey of sorts in ballot form that Save Siesta Key sent out to the more than 7,000 registered voters who reside on the island. The group plans to present the results to the delegation the Jan. 12 meeting where another delegation vote will once again determine the group’s fate.
“You went above and beyond what you had to do,” Gruters told the Save Siesta Key team.
Good intentions aside, could the straw vote become problematic? Grant said he was “looking for evidence for my support” and noted it would likely require more than just a large percentage of yes votes in what comes back. He wants to see a large response.
“If only 20% come back, it doesn’t tell me much. A 70% turnout, with at least 60% in support – that tells me something,” he said. “I’ll be blunt – if you don’t have a voter turnout that is interested in incorporation, I’m not going to be there for you.”
If Save Siesta Key survives the delegation vote, and also gains approval in Tallahassee from the state House and Senate during the upcoming spring session, a local referendum in the form of a special election would be held in 2023 – because there is no November general election in odd years — with a majority vote needed to make it official.
Such an election would cost about $10,000, Save Siesta Key chairman Tim Hensey reported, and could be done by either mail or paying to establish the local precincts, or a combination.
In that scenario, Siesta Key would be its own municipality on Dec. 31 of 2023.
However, Grant threw a possible wrench into that notion as well.
“I’d rather see it (the local vote) in a general election than a special election,” he said. “They have lower voter turnout, historically.”
In that case, the earliest Siesta Key could become a town is Dec. 31, 2024.
Another voice of caution came from newly elected Sarasota County Commissioner Mark Smith, a longtime Siesta Key resident, whose District 2 seat represents the northern portion of the island. Stating at the meeting that he felt the proposed .5 mill rate (doubled from last year’s .25 rate) was too low. He called his thoughts “a reality check.”
He stated his research showed that the average rate for barrier-island communities in the region is 1.9 mills, and for municipalities within the county it’s more than 3.2.
“.5, I believe, is too low. I think we should all vote, but know what we’re voting for,” Smith said. “When the town commission gets in, they’re going to need to raise the rate. If it ends up going from .5 to 1.9, are we OK with that?”
Hensey countered that by reminding those in attendance that Siesta Key’s staggering value of appraised property value of more than $7 billion should help keep money flowing, seeing as taxes are based upon those values. Therefore, substantial mill-rate increases won’t be needed.
“I like to call that the goose that laid the golden egg,” he said.
At the .5 mill rate, a home appraised at $500,000 (just slightly above the median value on the Key) would pay an additional $250 in taxes per year. A $1 million home, $500.
Hensey said the town’s budget would be roughly $3.8 million at the start, with $1.2 million in reserves expected after a year. By year five, that reserves number would be at almost $4 million, he added.
Hensey said the group is also exploring how Siesta Key can get additional bed-tax dollars. Currently, it produces about a third of the county’s total despite representing less than 2% of its population.
When asked why the proposed budget is so much lower than neighboring Longboat Key, which has revenues of about $17 million with a 1.99 mill rate, Hensey pointed to its police force and EMS services requiring more than 60 employees and making up more than half its budget.
Siesta Key would have only five or six employees, total, and would continue to use the county’s law enforcement and EMS services under its incorporation plan. Sheriff Kurt Hoffman has pledged his cooperation in that regard.
“We’re not trying to fix what ain’t broke,” Hensey said with a smile.
One area where the county will not be of assistance, Hensey reported, is with building and zoning services, noting said Sarasota County Administrator Jonathan Lewis has made that clear.
Thus, areas where Siesta Key would be on its own if incorporated are building/zoning, code enforcement, land use, beautification, additional law enforcement needs, and local side-street street maintenance.
Beyond law enforcement/EMS, the county would continue to provide utilities, maintenance of primary roads, trash collection, parks support, and mosquito control.
One resident asked if Siesta Key would be credited for any duplication of services that the county would be otherwise providing – such as the building/zoning services and code enforcement – and Hensey said law prohibits that.
Regarding the election of five volunteer town council members, should incorporation go through, Hensey said the plan for now is to have the three with the most votes serve three-year terms and the two lowest serve two-year terms, beginning a staggered rotation.
In closing. McFarland said that “greater headwinds” are now in play in Tallahassee for Siesta Key’s incorporation pursuit.
And Gruters, despite admitting “there is little appetite to expand government in Tallahassee,” he believes it’s understood by many lawmakers that incorporation would likely be seen as the will of the local citizens as opposed to having it thrust upon them.
“You’re voting yourselves to raise taxes,” he said. “That’s the difference.”