County delegation moves initiative ahead with 3-1 approval vote,
but local referendum wouldn’t be until November of 2024
By John Morton
It took 21 months to get there, but less than 15 minutes to make a pitch and get a vote.
Clearly, the Save Siesta Key group that is seeking the incorporation of the island not only did its homework but had its ducks in a row as it received, with very little discussion, a favorable 3-1 vote of approval Jan. 12 from the Sarasota County Legislative Delegation for its bill to advance to Tallahassee.
The county’s commission chambers erupted in cheers as the vote was cast, with only state Rep. James Buchanan voting no. He was among the three no votes at around the same time last year when the delegation shot down Save Siesta Key’s first attempt. As a result, it had to start over from scratch with a new feasibility study and fundraising effort.
“We are so elated, so relieved,” Jodie Tierney, a Save Siesta Key board member, said afterward. “Democracy worked today. All we ask is that incorporation goes on the ballot so the residents can decide.”
Favorable votes came from state Sen. Joe Gruters and state Reps. Fiona McFarland (who will sponsor the bill as the Key’s local District 73 representative) and Mike Grant, a Port Charlotte resident and newcomer to the delegation the result of redistricting that saw him inherit part of Sarasota County’s southern tier in District 75.
Redistricting also took two no votes from last year out of the equation in the form of state Reps. Will Robinson and Tommy Gregory.
Next, the Florida Legislature’s House and Senate must pass the bill at its session that begins in March, followed by a stamp of approval from the governor. Then, a local referendum would finally determine the bill’s fate. That would take place in conjunction with the presidential election of November 2024.
Had the delegation passed the measure or not, McFarland said “I think Siesta Key is better for having had this conversation,” acknowledging the frustrations some island residents have expressed frustration with a Sarasota County Commission that has recently voted to dredge Big Pass in order to renourish Lido Key with sand, to approve the massive Siesta Promenade project near the Key’s south entrance, and to approve three high-density hotels.
“I’m actually happy we got another year,” McFarland added. “You had a longer time to answer every question, every cause for concern we had. This was a true model of a grassroots organization.
Said Gruters, “You deserve a lot of credit for the groundwork that you’ve laid.”
However, Grant’s vote came at what could be considered a substantial price. His insistence on seeing a potential referendum come during a presidential election will result in an 18-month lag between the potential state approval and the decisive local vote on the island.
“I appreciate the compromise to make that happen,” Grant said.
Save Siesta Key had hoped to have a special referendum election this fall with the goal of being designated with incorporation on Dec. 31 of this year.
Furthermore, Grant wanted to see an election of a town council also take place during a major spring election, which would mean March of 2025.
“We’d like to think you’ll agree that we’re good listeners,” said Tim Hensey, the incorporation group’s chairman, regarding the delegation’s recommendations.
Added Tierney, “We were considerate of the delegation members and cooperated with them. And it paid off.”
McFarland also said the long potential wait could be good for the community.
“They’ll be completely informed about what it is they’re voting on,” she said. “I’m a big fan of voter education.”
No changes to what the legislature will be voting on will be allowed to take place during the lull.
The straw vote
Among the recommendations was the creation of a non-binding straw vote to gauge the public’s interest. It was offered by the delegation after its no vote last year.
Deciding to pursue the idea, Save Siesta Key spent nearly $30,000 on the endeavor, Hensey reported, mailing out 7,009 ballots in November with pre-paid return envelopes to Siesta Key’s registered voters. The eventual deadline for reply was Dec. 30.
The group sent out follow-up postcards and erected signs throughout the Key, urging residents to return their ballots. It even established a dedicated phone line for people to call who hadn’t received one.
The ballot question read: “Shall the Town of Siesta Key be incorporated, and its charter created?”
Hensey said incomplete addresses, residents being gone for the holidays, and some snafus with the postal service during its busiest time made for some challenges, resulting in a 41% reply.
However, Hensey noted it was a number greater than two of the last three county elections.
What did stand out, however, was an 87% approval rate on the ballot question – a number that Grant called “impressive.”
“We ran it like a true election,” said Hensey, who had ballots printed and mailed by an independent third party in Tallahassee. They were then tabulated by an independent law firm out of Lakewood Ranch.
“We didn’t touch the ballots,” he said.
Another change the incorporation group made, based upon delegation reaction from last year, was the doubling of the proposed starting mill rate. It went from .25 mills to .5 mills, which Hensey told the delegation on Jan, 12 was adequate.
With that number, the owner of a $500,000 home on Siesta Key – which is likely near the new average value that is yet to be established – would pay an additional $250 in taxes each year beyond the taxes already being paid to Sarasota County. A mill represents $1,000 of assessed value of a property.
Hensey pointed to island’s roughly $7.7 billion in property value as a crucial factor in the ability to operate at such a modest mill rate. He said that huge number went up by nearly $2 billion since just last year.
It will now allow for a projected town budget of $4.7 million, Hensey said, with a $1.9 million surplus in hand.
Five or six employees would be hired, including a town manager, code enforcement officer, planner, and clerk, totaling just shy of $1 million in compensation, Hensey said. He envisioned about $340,000 annually in operating expenses.
Out-sourced expenditures, he said, include $530,000 for firms that handle things like legal and engineering matters, $400,000 in law enforcement/EMS with Sarasota County, and $460,000 in side-road maintenance.
Why a no vote?
Buchanan, a former Siesta Key resident now living in Osprey and who currently serves as chairman of the delegation while representing District 74, last year voiced concerns about the .25 mills proposal being inadequate for supporting a municipality’s infrastructure. On this second vote, he said he had several concerns but only specifically mentioned the Key’s proximity to the city of Sarasota – a potential problem depending on how you interpret a portion of Florida Statute 165, which outlines the incorporation process.
It reads: “It must have a minimum distance of any part of the area proposed for incorporation from the boundaries of an existing municipality within the county of at least 2 miles or have an extraordinary natural boundary which requires separate municipal government.”
Not only is incorporated Siesta Key within 2 miles of the city of Sarasota, but several hundred homes on the Bay Island portion of the Key’s northern end were years ago annexed into the city. Save Siesta Key has not included them in the process, noting there is no mechanism to do so seeing as Siesta Key is not its own entity.
Buchanan said he feared such an incorporation could “set a bad precedent.”
“That’s probably my biggest concern,” he said.
However, there are many cases in which that clause has been waived, the Florida League of Cities reports, in what has become a state whose population continues to overwhelm its available land.
Florida has 411 municipalities. The most recent incorporation took place in Indiantown in Martin County in 2017. As for Siesta Key’s, it’s Florida’s largest barrier island that is not incorporated. Neighboring Longboat Key was incorporated in 1866, Lido Key is part of the city of Sarasota, and Casey Key remains part of unincorporated Sarasota County.
Still, Buchanan gave the incorporation credit in saying “I don’t think any delegation member can say you haven’t spent adequate time and energy on this. For that, I’m grateful to you. You’ve worked in good faith with members of the delegation.”
At the capitol
Meanwhile, working on state lawmakers will be Save Siesta Key’s next focus. It hired a new lobbyist last year in Tallahassee-based David Ramba and is considering hiring a second one, Hensey has said.
Save Siesta Key, a non-profit 501(c)(4) (to which contributors cannot declare donations as tax-deductible), will continue to raise funds. In its first year it collected about $125,000 and did so again in 2022.
This will mark McFarland’s third legislative session, and she will be bringing the Siesta Key incorporation bill to the floor.
New House speaker Paul Renner, R-Palm Coast, doesn’t share the same closed-mindedness on new taxes that his predecessor Chris Sprowls did, Hensey has said, which may also bode well for the incorporation group.
“If he supports it and lets it be heard, we have high chances,” Hensey said of Renner after the successful delegation vote.
Hensey has also said there’s a chance that some Save Siesta Key board members may be making a trip to Tallahassee during the upcoming session. The board consists of Hensey, Tierney, John Davidson, Tracy Jackson, Steve Lexow, and Gary Rodkin.