New county commissioner from Siesta Key questions whether incorporation leaders have planned on high enough tax rate to pay for services

Chair of Save Siesta Key maintains town would have sufficient funds for first five years of operations

The leaders of the nonprofit organization working to achieve the incorporation of most of Siesta Key have continued to maintain that a tax rate of 0.5 mills would be sufficient to cover all of the new town’s expenses.

However, Mark Smith, the Siesta resident elected to the County Commission in November, voiced concerns about that stance after the Save Siesta Key chair, Tim Hensey, discussed proposed town budget details during a Dec. 6 meeting that the nonprofit hosted at Siesta Key Chapel.

Hensey had explained that Save Siesta Key representatives would have to pay Sarasota County Government to keep providing emergency medical services (EMS), utilities, garbage/yard waste/recycling collections, mosquito control and upkeep of the county parks on the island.

The feasibility study that Save Siesta Key had to submit to the Florida Legislature by Sept. 1 estimates that, if the town can be created to begin functioning in the 2024-25 fiscal year — which would begin on Oct. 1, 2024 — the 0.5 mills would generate $4,389,051 in property tax revenue. (One mill represents $1 per $1,000 of property value. Thus, a person with a home valued at $200,000 would pay $200 in taxes; at half a mill, the amount would be $100.)

As he has during Siesta Key Association meetings in recent months, Hensey stressed that, because county property rates went up significantly this year, the overall value of property on Siesta Key is about $7 billion. (The feasibility study projects that the taxable value of island property will be “more than $7.6 billion in fiscal year 2023,” which began on Oct. 1.)

The Sarasota County Property Appraiser’s Office report issued in late June, to comply with state law, said that the overall value of property in the county rose 17.76% this year, compared to the 2021 certified figure.

For the budget charts included in Save Siesta Key’s feasibility study, the nonprofit’s consultant also factored in electric franchise fees, which the town would be eligible to receive. Those would be expected to total $283,424 in the 2023-24 fiscal year and then rise to $301,436 in the 2027-28 fiscal year.

Hensey has explained that state regulations for incorporation require that feasibility studies provide operating plans for five years, in an effort to show that the new town could sustain itself financially.

Further, the town would be eligible to share in revenue from the county’s Surtax IV Program, which will begin on Jan. 1, 2025, the study says. That initiative — approved by voters during the Nov. 8 General Election — generates the money through an extra penny of sales tax. Automatically, 25% of the revenue goes to the Sarasota County School Board. The rest of it is divvied up among the county and the municipalities on the basis of population, county staff has explained.

However, the county website points out, the money may be used only “to invest in public projects such as public safety, the environment, water quality, libraries, parks, schools and roads …” It cannot be used for general operating expenses.

For the 2024-25 fiscal year, a chart in Save Siesta Key’s feasibility study notes, the town’s total revenue is anticipated to be $4,714,086.

At the end of that first fiscal year of the town’s existence, Hensey told the audience on Dec. 6, Siesta Key also should have approximately $1.2 million in contingency funds.

The exact number in the feasibility study is $1,178,521.

Further, the study says that the contingency reserve fund “is projected to total $2,853,807 by the end of the Five-Year Operational Plan.”

‘A reality check’

Regardless of the figures Hensey cited, Commissioner Smith told him on Dec. 6, “The [0.5 mills], I believe, is too low …”
While Smith did not express any opposition to the idea of incorporation, he added that he wants “to be sure we know what we’re voting for.”

Hensey has acknowledged that residents of the Town of Siesta Key would have to continue paying taxes to the county, as well. That rate this year is 3.2232 mills. Additionally, the county tax for its Mosquito Control Program for the 2023 fiscal year is 0.0510 mills, the feasibility study further notes, while the assessment for emergency medical services is 0.6600 mills.

A woman in the audience asked whether the Town of Siesta Key would have any option not to pay the county for services if the new municipality took them over.

Hensey told her that a court decision made it clear that, even in that situation, towns get “no break.”

Other municipalities duplicate services of the counties in which they are located, he added, but their residents still have to pay the applicable county millage rate. “That’s the way it works.”

Smith talked about the millage rates of the existing municipalities in the county, as well as those of other towns and cities on barrier islands on the west coast of Florida. In the county, he noted, the average for this year is 3.2792 mills.

For the barrier islands — including Anna Maria, Holmes Beach and Sanibel — the average is 1.8778 mills, Smith added.

“I believe strongly … that when the [Siesta Key] town commission gets in, they’re going to need to raise the rate,” he said. “If it ends up going from .5 to 1.9, are we OK with that?” Smith asked.

Then he emphasized to the audience members, “A 2-point millage rate for Siesta Key would be a 61-and-a-half percent increase in your property taxes … Make sure you know what you’re voting for, please.”

Smith also stressed, “We have to negotiate with Sarasota county on the services [that it will continue to provide the island].” He expressed doubt that the Town of Siesta Key would be able to achieve a better deal with than the City of Sarasota or the Town of Longboat Key, for examples.

“It’s just a reality check, folks,” Smith added.

Tracy Jackson, vice chair of Save Siesta Key, pointed out to the audience, “We cannot negotiate interlocal agreements until we are a formal municipality.” Therefore, Save Siesta Key would not be able to provide details about county expenses in advance of a referendum on incorporation.

Delving more into the Town of Siesta Key’s expenses

Following those remarks, Hensey urged the audience members to visit Save Siesta Key’s website and look at the proposed budgets. Again, he stressed that the value of property in the portion of the island that would be incorporated is more than $7 billion this year. (The northernmost part of the Key is located within the jurisdiction of the City of Sarasota; the incorporation initiative does not include that territory.)

That figure was up from about $5.7 billion in 2021, Dr. Stephen Lexow, Save Siesta Key’s treasurer, noted.

The Town of Longboat Key, Hensey continued, has a millage rate of 1.99 mills. Its overall property value is similar to that of Siesta Key, he added — between $7.2 million and $7.3 million. “I studied this pretty intently,” Hensey added, referring to the finances of incorporated barrier islands.

Longboat has its own police department with 60 members, Hensey said, and it has EMS service with better life support equipment than that of the Sarasota County Fire Department. Paying for those two services, he told the audience, consumes over 50% of the Longboat Key annual budget.

“We’re not trying to fix what ain’t broke,” Hensey added. The money that would be brought in by 0.5 mills on Siesta Key, he stressed, “is more than adequate to do what we’re proposing to do.”

Hensey showed the audience members a slide saying that the Town of Siesta Key would handle building and zoning issues, Code Enforcement, beautification and local street maintenance.

He also reminded everyone that, last year, Sarasota County Sheriff Kurt A. Hoffman laid out in a letter for Save Siesta Key the plans to continue to provide services to the municipality at the same cost the Sheriff’s Office has been shouldering. However, Hensey noted, Hoffman offered to provide more deputies to the town if that was what town leaders wanted; that would raise the expense.

“But we think the sheriff is doing a pretty good job” with service on the Key, Hensey continued.

The feasibility study budget chart includes a total payment to the Sheriff’s Office and to the county for fire and EMS services that begins at $375,000 in the 2025 fiscal year and rises to $485,636 by the 2028 fiscal year. However, that chart shows no details about the fire and EMS expenses.

In response to an audience member’s question about the need for a town building department, Hensey explained that County Administrator Jonathan Lewis told him and other representatives of Save Siesta Key that “in no uncertain terms … they will not provide [the services associated with such a department].”

“I’d be happy to continue with that level of service” from the county, Hensey added. Nonetheless, he said, “That’s something [Lewis and other county staff members] drew the line in the sand in.”

During the first year of the town’s existence, Hensey said, the town leaders probably would hire a third party to handle building inspections and the examination of building plans.

As for the local roads: Hensey explained that those include the streets with “Avenida” and “Calle” in their names, for examples. The county would continue to maintain Higel Avenue, Beach Road and Midnight Pass Road, he said.

A state law forbids any transfers of roads, streets or highways, Hensey added, without the mutual consent of both parties involved. “But the county could also refuse to maintain the roads [on the island],” he acknowledged, which would force the new town to handle that responsibility.

Further, since the county has outstanding debt on the utilities it provides to the island, the county has to continue to own the utility equipment until that debt has been paid off, he pointed out.

In regard to the beautification plans, Hensey indicated that the first focus would be improvements — such as better lighting and landscaping — in the vicinity of the two drawbridges, which are the access points for the island.

In response to another question from the audience, Commissioner Smith explained that the owners of property in the Siesta Key Village Improvement District — essentially Siesta Village — pay for the maintenance of the Village. The county assesses each of those property owners every year, Smith added. Thus, a higher level of maintenance would necessitate higher tax assessments, he pointed out.