By John Morton
In early December, several members of the Sarasota County Legislative Delegation were greeted at a town hall meeting on Siesta Key by hundreds of enthusiastic residents who chanted “Let us vote!”
Less than a month later, they quickly exited a tense room to the chants of “Vote them out!”
On Jan. 4, before an overflow crowd in the county commission chambers in downtown Sarasota, the six-member delegation came to a 3-3 vote, killing Save Siesta Key’s eight-month effort to see its desire to make the island its own municipality come to fruition.
The no votes came from delegation members Will Robinson Jr., James Buchanan, and Tommy Gregory. Of those three state representatives, only Robinson’s territory includes Siesta Key — in the form of a sliver of the north part of the island where several homes fall into the city of Sarasota’s turf.
State Sen. Joe Gruters and state reps. Fionna McFarland and Michele Rayner cast the yes votes. Siesta Key’s footprint is primarily represented on the state level by Gruters and McFarland.
Save Siesta Key board member Harry Anand, a former mayor of a municipality on Long Island who was among the presenters on Jan. 4, looked at the bright side of the disappointing outcome.
“No one has ever taken incorporation this far,” he said of effort that has been discussed off and on for years. “It came down to a 3-3 vote. I think we learned a lot and the community learned a lot.
“We’ll need to do better and hopefully get another shot.”
Had the delegation supported the bill, it would have gone to the Florida Legislature where it would have to be approved by the House, the Senate, and the governor.
Then, a local referendum needing majority vote would be the final requirement.
The three dissenters voiced concerns regarding the small .25 mill rate being proposed, the modest number of five employees being proposed, and the challenge of paying for improvements to the Key’s infrastructure — identified by Anand as pedestrian and bicycle safety and beatification to the island’s entrances, per an online survey conducted by his group — with a proposed budget of only $3.7 million.
“You are setting yourselves up for failure,” Robinson, the chairman of the delegation, said.
Added Gregory, “I am not convinced this is going to do what you think it is going to do — not at .25.”
Further, Robinson considered the idea of five employees as “ridiculously low,” noting that Longboat Key has roughly the same amount of property value and is similar in land size and population but employees 130. It has a mill rate of slightly more than 2.
Noting that Longboat’s annual budget is about $17 million, he asked “Why can Siesta Key stand significantly alone?”
Robinson also pointed to a Dec. 1 memo from the state’s office of Economic and Demographic Research that said the Siesta Key financial plan seemed “deficient” — a comment to which Save Siesta Key did offer a response with more detail, it reported.
Board member Tim Hensey noted that Westlake, a community created through incorporation in West Palm Beach County in 2016, operates with mostly the same budget and number of employees six years later but had to establish a higher mill rate than the .25 mill suggested by Save Siesta Key.
The difference, he said, is the that Siesta Key has about $6 billion in assessed property value that saw an 18% increase during the past year with no signs of dipping.
“The goose that laid the golden egg is our property values,” Hensey said.
Robinson also objected to the fact that Siesta Key is within 2 miles of an existing municipality — referring to a buffer requirement the delegation acknowledged has been often waived elsewhere in the incorporation process.
Still, he said he didn’t like the idea of residents on the same island having two different mill rates — with city residents on the Key currently paying more than 3 mills.
“We should get everyone in at the same time,” he said of an idea to bring the city residents on the north end — mostly on Bay Island — into the incorporation effort.
Anand responded by stating he found nothing in the state’s statutes that allowed for the merging of residents into an entity — unincorporated Siesta Key — that doesn’t exist.
Defending ‘government lite’
Save Siesta Key brought in consultant Bill Underwood from the east side of the state to discuss his feasibility study. He defended the low mill rate — one that would require a tax increase of $96.75 for the owner of the assessed average value of a home on the Key, which is $440,062.
“None (of the other incorporation applicants in state history) have been able to meet our main objective of .25 mill. It’s a positive aspect,” he said.
It represents a “government lite” philosophy with an emphasis on dictating land use that features a few critical employees such as a town manager, clerk, and code enforcement officer. It then outsources many services it currently gets from the county, such as law enforcement and EMS/fire protection.
Despite a letter from Sarasota County Sheriff Kurt Hoffman in which he pledged his support, Robinson said he was worried that the county could limit it or strip it if the money isn’t there.
Lobbyist Jon Moyle was also brought in from Tallahassee to discuss how he’d support the bill at the Capitol, saying he’d emphasize the fact that Gruters and McFarland were in support.
“There should be a level of deference to those who represent the area,” he said.
He also reminded the delegation that it’s important to let the people vote — something Anand has voiced on numerous occasions in front of the delegation.
“I compare this to the (Sarasota) county becoming its own 100 years ago. Let the process continue to work,” Moyle said.
Gruters, who enthusiastically pledged his support for the first time at the Dec. 8 town hall meeting, did the same again.
“This is about a community organizing to take back control — the control of what happens within their border, control of decisions that impact them on a daily basis, and control overall about their quality of life,” he said.
Siesta Key has always been governed by Sarasota County. Save Siesta Key was created in March in reaction to recent county decisions including the approval of the Siesta Promenade project at U.S. 41 and Stickney Point Road at the gateway to the island, the dredging of neighboring Big Pass to renourish Lido Key’s beaches, and subsequently the approval of two high-density hotels with two more coming up for vote.
“It’s not about raising taxes or expanding government. It’s about returning the power to this community,” Gruters said.
Meanwhile, of the 20 public comments at the Jan. 4 meeting, only one expressed a view against incorporation.
Dozens more submitted written support to the delegation and were acknowledged by name.
More signatures, please
But Robinson pounded home on the lack of support by petition — noting that the 2,360 collected — about 1,600 from which came from registered voters — was inadequate in his mind.
Per the application process, petitions from only 10% of the voting community is required in an incorporation application. That threshold was easily met.
Siesta Key has about 7,500 registered voters within a population of 8,915, the feasibility study indicated.
“If it was close, I’d be willing to put it on the ballot,” Robinson said of a lack of a majority in the petition numbers. “But it’s not even close.”
As for Gregory, who at the town hall meeting said legislators at the state level would be against any kind of tax increase for residents of a community and thus would potentially not even entertain Siesta Key’s bill, did give Save Siesta Key some specific advice if it decides to try again. His three suggestions:
1. Collect petitions from 50%-plus-1 of the residents.
2. Include the north-end residents. “It’s not logical to divide the city residents with the rest of the Key.”
3. Cap the mill rate of .25 for the first few years. “Put your money where your mouth is.”
Added Robinson in closing, “Something clearly is broken,” he said of Siesta Key’s relationship with the county. “But I don’t see this as a close call. And you’re dividing residents. There are also problems with the feasibility study.
“There’s a better way.”