Siesta Key incorporation effort wins Delegation support

Rep. Buchanan the only one to oppose local bill during vote on Jan. 12

Cheers and applause rang out in the Sarasota County Commission Chambers in downtown Sarasota early in the afternoon of Jan. 12.  The members of the Sarasota County Legislative Delegation had voted 3-1 to allow the introduction of a Siesta Key incorporation bill in the 2023 session of the Florida Legislature.

It took about 11 minutes for Tim Hensey, chair of the nonprofit Save Siesta Key to make his presentation and for the Delegation members to offer comments and then vote.

The item was the third on the Jan. 12 agenda for the Delegation meeting.

Rep. James Buchanan, R-Osprey, who chairs the Delegation this year, cast the lone “No” vote.

Following the decision, Buchanan charged Rep. Fiona McFarland, R-Sarasota, with introducing the local bill in the Florida House.

Even before the vote, Buchanan cautioned that if the majority the Delegation members agreed to proceed with the incorporation effort, “There will be plenty of work ahead.”

During a Dec. 6, 2022 meeting that Save Siesta Key leaders conducted at Siesta Key Chapel, McFarland acknowledged that, if the majority of the Delegation members voted to support the incorporation effort, it still would not be easy for her to gain sufficient support from enough of her Florida House colleagues for it to pass.

That evening, state Sen. Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota, expanded on McFarland’s remark. “With supermajority Republican control — House and Senate,” Gruters said, “there is little appetite to expand government.”

The 2023 legislative session is scheduled to begin on March 7 and conclude on May 5.

If the local bill passes the House, it also will have to win approval in the Senate, and then Gov. Ron DeSantis will have to sign it.

Hensey of Save Siesta Key did tell the legislators on Jan. 12 that, in response to concerns that new Delegation member Rep. Mike Grant, R-Port Charlotte, raised during the nonprofit’s Dec. 6 meeting, the decision had been made to hold the referendum on incorporation on the November 2024 General Election ballot — if the local bill wins final approval.

Grant had voiced concerns about the original Save Siesta Key proposal to conduct a special election this year. Grant pointed out that voter turnout typically is much higher during general elections.

On Jan. 12, Hensey noted that this was the second time his organization had sought the Delegation’s support for incorporation. Last year, the six-member Delegation ended up with a 3-3 vote, which meant no local bill could be filed. However, with district changes following the release of the 2020 Census data, the Delegation ended up losing two members, both of whom opposed the 2022 incorporation proposal. Grant as the newest member of the group.

The financial aspects

On Jan. 12, Hensey said he hoped the members agreed that the leaders of Save Siesta Key are “good listeners.”

For example, he continued, in response to concerns raised last year that the proposed 0.25 mills millage rate for the Town of Siesta Key was too low, Save Siesta Key doubled it for the second round of incorporation efforts. (One mill represents $1,000 of the value of a piece of property.)

“I think it’s important to recognize that we have $7.7 billion worth of property assessed value on Siesta Key,” Hensey added. The total went up close to $2 billion in 2022, he noted, compared to the 2021 figure.

Because of that high property value, Hensey pointed out, the town would be expected to take in $4.7 million in revenue in its first year. In regard to expenses, Hensey explained that the nonprofit’s required feasibility study for the Legislature put town staff costs at “a hair over a million [dollars].”

He said that the study anticipated $340,000 in operating expenses; $530,000 for contracts with firms that would handle legal and engineering issues, for examples; $400,000 in payments to the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office; and $460,000 in road maintenance expenses.

That would leave the town a surplus of about $1.9 million, Hensey told the Delegation members. Given the destruction that Hurricane Ian wrought in South County in late September, he indicated that having that much surplus could be even more critical than he and his Save Siesta Key colleagues had anticipated.

“We think that our half mill is very adequate,” Hensey added, “and we hope that you agree.”

Another suggestion raised during the 2021 Delegation meeting, he continued, was that Save Siesta Key should conduct a straw vote on incorporation. “At your encouragement,” Hensey said, the nonprofit took that action this year, conducting it “exactly like a true election.”

An independent firm in Tallahassee printed and mailed ballots to all of the 6,750 registered voters in the area of Siesta Key designated for incorporation, he explained. (The northernmost part of the island is within the City of Sarasota’s jurisdiction.)

“Basically,” Hensey added, “we didn’t touch the ballots.”

The mailings with the ballots included pre-addressed, pre-stamped envelopes, Hensey said, and Save Siesta Key set a deadline for their return to a law firm in Lakewood Ranch, where the ballots would be tallied.

“The results, we think, were very, very encouraging,” he told the Delegation members. The turnout was 41.4%, Hensey said. That figure was higher than the turnout for two of the three elections conducted in Sarasota County in 2022, he pointed out.

“Even more impressive,” he continued, “is that we had an 87% favorable [result].” Hensey noted that he could not recall any formal ballot question that had garnered that high a level of support.

If the Delegation members wanted to know how Siesta Key voters viewed the prospect of incorporation, Hensey said, the response was “a resounding ‘Yes,’ ” based on the straw ballot results.

“We appreciate your leadership,” Hensey told the Delegation members. “You’ve been great to have dialogue with us.”

Commendations and continuing concern

Following Hensey’s remarks, Buchanan asked whether any member had a question or wanted to offer an amendment to the proposed local bill. None did.

He further noted that no one had signed up to offer public testimony. (Given the anticipated tight schedule for the Jan. 12 meeting, with a multitude of presentations expected, Sen. Gruters cautioned incorporation supporters at Siesta Key Chapel in early December not to sign up to address the Delegation.)

When Buchanan called for debate, Gruters thanked the Save Siesta Key leaders for all of the work they “put into trying to make this happen.”

Gruters added, “I don’t know what the outcome’s going to be, but you guys deserve a lot of credit for the groundwork that you guys laid.”

Grant concurred, adding, “I know it’s a lot of work incorporating.”

Grant also expressed his appreciation for the decision to propose that the referendum be conducted during the 2024 General Election, which will include the vote on the next President of the United States.

McFarland, who had joined Gruters last year in championing the incorporation proposal, told the audience members supporting the initiative, “I’m actually happy we got another year.” The proponents of incorporation “answered every question, every cause for concern that we had,” she said, including those relating to fiscal responsibility and resident participation in the process.

She also applauded the decision to push off the referendum to November 2024, if the local bill wins approval of the Legislature and Gov. DeSantis. “I’m a big fan of voter education,” she explained, “so people actually know what it is they’re voting on.”

With a November 2024 referendum date, McFarland continued, she felt certain that Siesta Key residents “will be informed about what it is they’re voting on …”

She also characterized the work of the Save Siesta Key leaders and their supporters a “true model of grassroots organization and coordination.”

Still, McFarland took the opportunity to emphasize that if the Delegation vote was favorable, “We do still need to get [the local bill] through the Florida Legislature,” with its 120 House members and 40 Senate members.

Nonetheless, she said as she looked out at the audience, “We’ve got a lot of blue shirts here.”

Save Siesta Key leaders had distributed an email just after 9:30 a.m. on Jan. 12, urging a strong showing at the Delegation meeting.

Signed by Hensey, the email asked supporters to wear blue shirts.

In fact, before the Delegation members addressed the first agenda item, Buchanan reported that he had been advised that the Commission Chambers had too many people in it, in violation of the county’s Fire Code. He asked those who were standing to relocate to another room, where they would be able to watch the meeting.

After his announcement, McFarland pointed out that she won her first term in the House in 2020, the year the COVID-19 pandemic began in Florida and in-person participation in government meetings was restricted or not allowed. “I love hearing that we have too many people to fill the room,” she said with a big smile.

Finally, before the vote, Buchanan told the audience, “I don’t think any Delegation member can say you haven’t spent adequate time and energy on this,” including addressing concerns the members had raised. “For that,” he added, “I’m grateful to you. You’ve worked in good faith with members of the Delegation.”

However, Buchanan explained, he still was concerned about the proximity of the planned Town of Siesta Key to the City of Sarasota.

State law calls for a minimum separation of 2 miles between municipalities, as former Delegation members Rep. Tommy Gregory, R-Sarasota, and Rep. Will Robinson Jr., R-Bradenton, pointed out last year. The Town of Siesta Key would be closer than that to the city, a fact to which Buchanan alluded on Jan. 12.

Robinson, especially, cited that issue as a big concern. He talked of the fact that Longboat Key is split between Sarasota and Manatee counties, with residents paying different millage rates. Therefore, he said at the January 2022 Delegation meeting, support for Siesta’s incorporation would be akin to “setting ourselves up for failure, like Longboat Key.”

Leaders of the Town of Longboat Key have talked with Sarasota County commissioners in the past about the potential of the entire Key being located within Sarasota County’s jurisdiction. However, no formal initiative to undertake such a change ever has begun.

Although Save Siesta Key leaders reported last year that legislative staff had assured them that legislators could waive that separation requirement, Buchanan said on Jan. 12 that he feared allowing most of Siesta to incorporate that close to the city would set a bad precedent for the rest of the state. “That’s probably my biggest concern.”

Following the vote, Buchanan told the incorporation supporters, “Congratulations.”

(Because of the deadline for this issue of The Sarasota News Leader, the publication was unable to get any responses from Save Siesta Key leaders about the vote.)