Before imposing a special tax on Casey Key homeowners to pay for measures to stabilize road and water line, commissioners call for more public outreach

Chair directs staff to send letter to each property owner who would be responsible for an annual payment

A slide shows the conditions at the two project areas on Casey Key. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Before they agree to impose a special tax on Casey Key homeowners to help cover the cost of significant repairs to Casey Key Road, the Sarasota County commissioners want to be sure those homeowners are aware of the prospect of the payments.

The majority of them made that clear during a June 19 budget workshop discussion.

In summing up comments from Commissioners Michael Moran and Christian Ziegler, as well as his own thoughts, Chair Charles Hines directed staff to send a letter to each owner of a Casey Key parcel that would be covered by what is called a Municipal Services Taxing Unit (MSTU).

The commission sitting in July 1988 created an MSTU district to pay for a road stabilization project on North Casey Key, staff has pointed out, so the current commission legally could set a new millage rate for that district for a subsequent project. The MSBU tax has been shown as zero on the Casey Key property owners’ bills since the funding was recovered for that earlier project, County Engineer and Public Works Director Spencer Anderson explained on June 19.

However, Hines, Moran and Ziegler said they felt it would be unfair to approve a new tax without giving the owners of the approximately 300 affected parcels this time the opportunity to comment on the prospect of paying $1,200 or more each year for the new improvements.

Anderson pointed out — as staff had during a previous discussion of the issues, in December 2018 — that county representatives talked about the potential revival of the MSTU when they attended a Casey Key Homeowners Association (HOA) meeting in November 2018. However, Anderson also indicated on June 19 that only a small number of the property owners attended that session. “There wasn’t a significant amount of feedback that we received.”

Still, Anderson acknowledged, one or two people did have a lot of questions about the prospect of the county’s using the MSBU once again.

A graphic shows the properties within the boundaries of the special tax district, as well as the location of the county road. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Hines’ direction to staff followed a failed vote on a motion by Commissioner Nancy Detert, seconded by Commissioner Alan Maio, calling for the affected property owners to pay 0.6022 mills per year for 10 years to cover 50% of the estimated $7.6-million expense of the road repairs on the northern part of the Key and in an area about midpoint of Casey Key.

The annual amount would be $602 per $1 million of value of the property, Anderson noted. Given the fact that the average value of a Casey Key parcel is $2 million, he continued, that would put the yearly tax bill at $1,204.

“I don’t know how anybody living on Casey Key would object to that, considering the dire condition of the road,” Detert said, adding that a county potable water line also is threatened by the worsening erosion. “We’re in an emergency mode, I think.”

Maio noted that Anderson also had suggested a five-year payback schedule with an annual millage rate of 1.110 — meaning a tax of $1,110 per $1 million in property value. Maio added of Detert’s motion, “I think this is a happy medium and certainly solves at least the immediate set of circumstances there.”

Yet, when Hines asked for the vote, only Detert and Maio supported the motion.

“I do have a little trouble with the lack of taxpayer input on this,” Moran said, adding that he thought he was in the minority with that view. “I reallywant to hear … from the residents of this community in detail, for or against.”

Moran then was quick to point out that he was not criticizing Anderson. “Spencer, you’re absolutely doing your job and doing a fantastic job at it.”

Still, Moran, Ziegler and Hines agreed that more public outreach is necessary.

If, after those communications take place and the majority proves to be in opposition to paying an annual tax for the improvements, Hines said, “We’ll see how the [board] vote goes next time.”

Getting to this point

On Dec. 11, 2018, Anderson led a discussion with the board members that took close to 90 minutes. It focused on the continuing loss of Casey Key shoreline, which is threatening both Casey Key Road and the county water line.

A photo shows waves over-washing the northern portion of Casey Key Road during a winter storm. Image courtesy Sarasota County

To stabilize the road, Anderson and Larry Mau, assistant county engineer, proposed not only a rock revetment on the northern part of the barrier island but also one at mid-key, in the vicinity of 2120 Casey Key Road.

In 1990, Mau explained in December 2018, a step revetment system was constructed at the northern location in an effort to prevent further erosion.

The contract for the design of the two rock revetment systems should be ready for commission consideration in August, Anderson noted on June 19.

In the meantime, the county is using large sandbags at the mid-key location to keep the road stabilized, he said. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) granted the county a permit for the “trap bags” as an emergency measure extending several hundred feet, Anderson added; the permit will expire in 2021.

Anderson characterized the mid-key situation as, “for all intents and purposes, a hot spot on the shoreline,” with the beach eroded up to the road. “Sand fluctuates on a year-to-year basis up and down the shoreline here.”

‘Trap bags’ have been installed at the mid-key location to stabilize the road and water line. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Given the estimated construction expense of $7.6 million, Anderson said, staff had considered a number of funding options. The county receives $1.2 million a year from a gas tax, he added, but that money would be needed for other purposes, as well.

If the county were to borrow half of the $7.6 million with a 10-year amortization period, he continued, the county would have to pay debt service of about $859,000 per year.

Staff is “pretty close” to winning a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) grant of $450,000, Anderson added.

Then he offered proposals for the taxing district.

These are the primary taxing options staff proposed. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Along with the five-year and 10-year schedules he already had discussed, Anderson noted that staff had explored other 10-year payback options; those ranged between 0.1 and 0.5 mills a year. “The small millage really doesn’t help us take a bit of the overall construction cost.”

“It really doesn’t solve our problem,” Detert responded, concurring with Anderson’s view about imposing one of the smaller millage rates.

Then the questioning began about staff outreach regarding the MSTU.

Anderson did explain that staff meets each month with a Casey Key HOA task force focused on the road issues. “We have been talking with them thoroughly about this [MSTU proposal].”

He also pointed out that staff sent out mailers and extended personal invitations to each of the residents in advance of that November 2018 session. “It was a special meeting of the HOA to discuss this …”

Commissioner Ziegler noted that the potential payment of $1,200 per year for the MSTU is “a good chunk of change … I just want to make sure people are aware of it … before we slap that on their [tax bills].”

Anderson responded that the most significant MSTU in the county is the one that has been used on south Siesta Key to pay for the two beach renourishment projects on that part of the island. A review of annual tax bills for those affected single-family homeowners showed many payments in the $5,000 range, he indicated, though one assessment is more than $17,000.

These are alternative proposals for the annual tax. Image courtesy Sarasota County

“I’ve lived here a long time,” Detert told Anderson, adding that she recalls the worst storm ever to strike Casey Key, which was called the No Name Storm. “They lost the entire road.” The only way people could reach their homes, she pointed out, was by boat. “How much would you be willing to pay to make sure your very expensive home doesn’t fall into the Gulf [of Mexico]? I think $1,200 a year is a pretty remarkable amount.”

Maio said he understood from residents’ emails that many take the view that Casey Key Road serves the public as well as the property owners on the barrier island. Still, he said, if the board did nothing that day, “Who pays?” Would all county taxpayers have to help shoulder the expense, he asked.

“We would bring back some additional options,” Anderson replied. However, Anderson added that he was not certain staff should proceed with the contract for the design of the rock revetments, given the uncertainty of finding the money to pay for their construction.

In response to a question about the trap bags, Anderson said it was likely FDEP would extend the permit for their emergency use at the mid-key location.

“I just think we need more outreach … to the residents there to get their feedback [on reviving the MSTU],” Ziegler said.

Slides from 2007 and 2018 compare the Casey Key shoreline. Image courtesy Sarasota County

“I’m fine with that,” Maio responded. Nonetheless, Maio continued, “I think speed is important, because it was only months ago … that Spencer and other [county] employees were standing under the road [at mid-key] … because it had been hollowed out to a significant degree.”

“I think there are many folks that have noclue that this [MSTU] ever existed,” Hines pointed out.

Additionally, staff had not mentioned re-establishing the advisory board that existed while the MSTU was active, Hines said.

Even though, to his knowledge, the Casey Key HOA is a voluntary organization, Hines continued, he believes its leaders have addresses for all the island property owners. “You can get [the affected residents’] input,” Hines told Anderson. “Put a stamp on an envelope.”