By John Morton
One half of a mill.
That’s the new millage rate being proposed by Save Siesta Key as the group readies for a second stab at incorporation.
Still very modest in comparison to other municipalities, it doubles the .25 starting rate that the group proposed last year, which resulted in an estimated budget of $3.75 million.
Those numbers were met with skepticism by one of the members of the Sarasota County Legislative Delegation who voted no in a 3-3 tie vote that locally killed the incorporation effort last January before it could get to Tallahassee for consideration.
“We see it as a necessary change to get through the political process,” said Tim Hensey, chairman of Save Siesta Key, during a July 13 public Zoom meeting that drew more than 200 viewers who were invited to submit questions. Vice-chairman Tracy Jackson and treasurer Steve Lexow joined Hensey as moderators, while new board members Jodie Tierney and Gary Rodkin introduced themselves with a short visual presentation.
That new .5 mill rate will be one of the adjustments to a feasibility study the group will have to resubmit by Sept. 1 as part of the incorporation application process.
Previously, the .25 rate represented an annual tax bill for Siesta Key residents of $96.75 based upon the average assessed value of a home on the island, which late last year was at $440,062. That value is likely to be a higher number when recalculated this year as property values continue to skyrocket.
“We don’t think that we’re at a choking point with anyone financially,” Hensey said of the new mill rate.
A mill is one thousandth of a dollar, or one tenth of one cent. The millage rate is the number of dollars of tax assessed for each $1,000 of property value.
Generally, the new .5 mill proposal doubles the scenario for taxpayers.
Also new is a second round of a fundraising campaign for the group as it seeks $100,000 for its new effort. As of July 20, it had raised $19,811 via 62 donations. Last year, it raised roughly $120,000 but most of that has been spent.
“Right now, we only have enough money to get us through the end of August,” Hensey said.
Save Siesta Key is a 501(c)(4) non-profit group, so contributions are not tax deductible. Those interested in donating can visit savesiestakey.org.
Hensey said the investment would support something he feels is very promising for several reasons.
“We’re not just wasting money. We’re not just spinning our wheels,” Hensey said. “We really think we’ll get there this time.”
A new political landscape
One of those reasons, Hensey reminded participants, is the recent shake-up from House redistricting that favorably altered the delegation, taking it from six members down to four. Gone is state Reps. Will Robinson and Tommy Gregory, who voted no. The third no vote can from Rep. James Buchanan, who Hensey said was scheduled to have a face-to-face meeting with Save Siesta Key on July 18.
A viewer asked if a writing campaign would still be effective with Buchanan in mind, such as what hundreds did last year, and Hensey reaffirmed the value of such a tactic to reinforce community interest.
“I’d love to see Buchanan get 400 letters,” Hensey said.
New to the delegation, thanks to the new maps, is state Rep. Michael Grant, who represents part of the county’s southern portion. A recent meeting with Grant, Hensey said, resulted in Grant asking many questions but voicing no opposition.
“He was satisfied with our answers,” Hensey said.
While Grant didn’t promise a vote of approval, “We believe we’ll get it,” Hensey said.
That leaves state Rep. Fiona McFarland, who directly represents Siesta Key and last year agreed to sponsor the bill. State Sen. Joe Gruters also represents a yes vote, and Hensey called his ongoing support as unwavering.
“He has always championed Siesta Key,” he said of the state senator.
While a successful 3-1 outcome seems likely, Hensey feels, and a 4-0 vote possible, one wild card is the fact that both Gruters and McFarland face opposition in the upcoming elections.
“It’s important if Gruters and McFarland lose their seats,” Hensey said of the urgency of convincing Buchanan and Grant.
For Gruters, he’ll know his fate in an Aug. 23 universal primary (where all registered voters can vote, regardless of party affiliation) with fellow Republican Michael Johnson, who lives near Orlando. If Johnson were to win, he’d have to move to Sarasota County.
No Democratic candidate is on the ticket, so there is no November election.
McFarland, a Republican, has no primary in August but faces Democrat Derek Reich in the November general election.
The earliest the delegation would vote on incorporation would be December, so those two outcomes could be critical, Hensey said.
Another promising scenario on the horizon, Hensey said, is that new lobbyist David Ramba will be on board. The Tallahassee-based lawyer has a strong history at the capitol building and will have plenty of time to work with state Rep. Paul Renner, who will take over the role of House speaker in 2023. He replaces state Rep. Chris Sprowls, whose hardline stance on no new taxes would have likely hindered incorporation at the previous legislative session and possibly influenced, even if indirectly, the delegation votes by Robinson and Gregory, Hensey has said he believes. Both Robinson and Gregory said at a December town hall meeting on Siesta Key that the climate in Tallahassee was not conducive for an incorporation request.
Regarding any thoughts of annexation by the city of Sarasota, Hensey confirmed it was a dead issue. Save Siesta Key and other local civic groups attended a February meeting with Sarasota Mayor Erik Arroyo to hear his pitch, but the high mill rate at roughly 3.2, or possibly a point lower if Siesta Key joined the city thanks to an influx of property values, was still too high for consideration.
The city’s ongoing surge of high-rise development was another turnoff.
“We didn’t like what we saw,” Hensey said.
Speaking of the city, the new feasibility study will once again not include provisions for the several hundred residents who live in Siesta Key’s Bay Island neighborhood near the north bridge, which is already part of Sarasota.
It was a sticking point for Robinson during the delegation vote. Bringing them on board after incorporation would be a possibility, if so desired by those residents, board members said.
Hensey also said Save Siesta Key is still hoping to get a local non-binding straw poll on the November ballot, which Gregory had suggested, to gauge interest. It would, however, require a vote of approval by the Sarasota Board of County Commissioners – the very entity that the incorporation group opposes, springing it into action last year with an effort to break away from being governed by the county in what it considers a reckless and indifferent manner.
“Our lobbyist thinks he can get that done,” Hensey said of swaying the county to allow for the straw vote.
Viewers asked many questions about the two large hotels on Siesta Key that the county has approved, with two more in the application phase, and Hensey acknowledged there was little his group could do. However, two lawsuits filed by local residents have those hotels in limbo. Trial dates are set for next spring.
Hensey speculated that if a successful referendum vote were to occur in November of 2023, with incorporation to follow on Dec. 31 of that year and a local election of five council members to follow in March of 2024, the possibility of a building moratorium could be explored until the new town could handle its on land-use issues.
Before that happens, first must come a favorable delegation vote followed by the same from the House and Senate next spring. Even after all that, the governor must sign off on the bill.
Safer, more appealing, more control
Meanwhile, beyond the high-profile conflicts with the hotels the incorporation group emphasized its desire to control its overall look and feel on a smaller — but still important — front. It feels the county is mostly ignoring this or is being misguided with its decisions.
For example, Hensey said architectural standards should be consistent with coastal environments, and beautification should also be an emphasis.
“We’re the No. 1 beach in the world. I want to look like the No. 1 beach in the world,” Hensey said.
Pedestrian safety was also discussed.
“We have seven pedestrian crosswalks in one-fifth of a mile,” Hensey said of the intersection of Midnight Pass and Stickney Point roads, noting the need for more safety-related signage.
Then there are the illegal short-term rentals that many feel are a plague on the Key. The issue came up as a question.
When asked if incorporation could help control that issue, Hensey responded with an emphatic “Absolutely.”
Like last year, the group is also recruiting neighborhood ambassadors. About 20 volunteers are networking in 10 condominium communities, and Jackson said she’s hoping to double that number.
She also said additional Zoom meetings are likely, seeing as they reach people regardless of their location.
Said Hensey, “One of the biggest things we’re fighting is that many residents aren’t here right now.”
Still, the group’s members kept emphasizing their confidence.
“We see the horizon much brighter,” Hensey said in comparison to things last year at this time.
Added Rodkin, in closing, “Just think of what Siesta Key will look like in five years if we don’t incorporate.”