Save Siesta Key submits application as second attempt commences
By John Morton
The state of Florida has received an application for incorporation from a Siesta Key-based citizen group for the second straight year.
Just like in 2021, Save Siesta Key got its required feasibility study to Tallahassee on Aug. 31 – one day before its due date. The 104-page document includes the study, a town charter, and a bill that it hopes this time around will be signed.
The first time around, the Florida Legislature never saw the proposal as it was shot down in early January at the local level when the Sarasota County Legislative Delegation voted 3-3, killing it in downtown Sarasota.
What’s not new for round 2 is the mindset of the incorporation group as far as its message to lawmakers is concerned.
“The mission of Save Siesta Key is the same – it’s not ‘do you want us to incorporate?’ No, let the residents decide for themselves,” said chairman Tim Hensey when speaking Sept. 8 to the Siesta Key Association civic group.
He also emphasized the principle of the endeavor, reminding the audience that Siesta Key is Florida’s largest unincorporated barrier island.
“Florida has more than 400 cities. It’s not like we’re coming up with something on our own that’s some new, wild idea,” he said.
That said, Hensey outlined a hopeful fast-track timetable that would allow Siesta Key to possibly become its own functioning municipality by Jan. 1 of 2024. Being a non-election year, the Legislature convenes in March instead of January, costing the effort a few months. If it passes the House and Senate, and is not overturned by the governor, Save Siesta Key would pay Sarasota County for a special election referendum in July or August, Hensey said, because no general election in November would exist. If a majority of Siesta Key’s 7,100 registered voters approve the measure, another special election could be held prior to year’s end to select a five-person town council.
The latest that election would take place would be in February, Hensey said.
“It depends on how many candidates emerge and how much time is needed for them to campaign,” he said. “We need to be fair to the candidates and the voters.”
All of this, of course, depends upon approval first at the county level. That vote would again likely take place in January. But what’s different this year is that redistricting eliminated two previous no votes in the form of state representatives Will Robinson and Tommy Gregory. The only dissenting vote remaining in the mix belonged to state Rep. James Buchanan (District 74).
New to the delegation, now at four members instead of six, is state Rep. Michael Grant (District 75) who represents a small portion of southern Sarasota County. Hensey has reported that talks with him seemed positive.
Returning to the delegation is state Sen. Joe Gruters, who won his universal primary election in August and maintains his seat in District 23. But state Rep. Fiona McFarland (District 73), whose territory directly represents Siesta Key and who once again is willing to sponsor the incorporation bill, has a challenger in the November general election. A victory for her means a 3-1 vote of support, or better, seems likely, Hensey has said.
What’s also new is the mill rate of .5 that is being proposed by Save Siesta Key – double the .25 rate of last year that was met with skepticism. Still, it’s a far cry from the mill rate slightly above 3.0 that the city of Sarasota has in place.
That modest proposed rate for Siesta Key continues to be reinforced by skyrocketing property values on the, Hensey said, which he reported now exceed $7 billion after seeing a roughly $2 billion increase since the last proposal.
Steve Lexow, the group’s treasurer, reported that Siesta Key represents 9% of the county’s assessed property value, while having less than 2% of its population.
Save Siesta Key is also planning to hire a second lobbying firm, and an aggressive flyer campaign is on the horizon, so fundraising remains at the forefront. Between the two campaigns, it has received about $170,000 in donations — about $33,000 of it coming since the reboot. The goal for round 2 is $100,000.
Meanwhile, the new tax annual bill for residents won’t be known until a new median average of assessed value for a homeowner is determined. Last year, when the average was $440,062, the average tax bill was $96.75. Hensey said it would roughly double that considering the new mill rate.
That new mill rate would also open the door for a larger employee wish list, Hensey said, with about 10 in mind. Among the titles would be town manager, finance director, code enforcement officers, and town clerk.
The expected budget is roughly $3.4 million, Hensey said, before expenditures.
The elected council members, as also proposed last year, would not be paid according to the charter, Hensey added.
Another twist in the plot comes in the fact that two new county commissioners will be onboard come November, with both seats representing part of Siesta Key. And one of them could be held by a Siesta Key resident, as Republican Mark Smith faces Democrat Fredd Atkins in District 2. No Democrat has been elected to the board in more than 50 years.
District 2 includes the northern half of Siesta Key and was held by Christian Ziegler, who chose not to run for re-election. District 4 includes the southern half of the island, and Alan Maio’s time in that seat will expire via term limits. Both Ziegler and Maio often cast votes that Save Siesta Key members felt were not in the best interest of the island.
The approvals of the dredging of Big Pass, the Siesta Promenade project, and two large-scale hotels are among recent county decisions that prompted the incorporation effort last March.
With the shakeup in mind, Hensey was asked to see if the incorporation effort should be put on hold to see if Siesta Key leaders get what they consider better representation.
“I don’t think we’re going to stop the train,” Hensey said of being at the mercy of the board’s decisions. Even with Smith potentially a member, there are four other votes in play.
Finally, two new faces are in place on Save Siesta Key’s board of directors. Coming on board this year were Jodie Tierney and Gary Rodkin, joining remaining members John Davidson, Tracy Jackson, Lexow, and Hensey.