Leaders of Siesta Key incorporation effort looking at doubling proposed millage rate to 0.50 mills as they work on second attempt to get necessary bill introduced into Legislature

New chair optimistic about chances of incorporation, thanks to changes in makeup of Sarasota County Legislative Delegation

The chair of the nonprofit working to incorporate the Town of Siesta Key has announced that he and his fellow board members are planning to double the proposed millage rate for the proposed new municipality, in advance of submitting revised paperwork to the Legislature by the Sept. 1 deadline.

Tim Hensey, chair of Save Siesta Key, reminded approximately 200 participants during a July 13 presentation, via Zoom, that the nonprofit last year called for a millage rate of 0.25 mills to pay for the services that the Town of Siesta Key would need to provide.

The millage rate is just one facet of the feasibility study that the Florida Statutes requires for any incorporation initiative. The study, Hensey noted, lays out all aspects of how the town would be governed and how its activities would be financed.

An economist who is “very, very experienced,” is working on the revision of the 2021 document, Hensey added.

Last year, Hensey noted on July 13, members of the Sarasota County Legislative Delegation questioned whether the amount of money that the 0.25 mills rate would raise would be sufficient. Other municipalities of comparable size have millage rates of 2 mills or slightly higher, Hensey acknowledged.

One mill represents $1 per $1,000 of the value of a parcel, for tax purposes.

“So we’ve been encouraged to go to .5 mills,” Hensey said.

In fact, Hensey added later during the session, “We see that being kind of a necessary change.”

A Florida Department of Revenue document shows that, among beach communities in Manatee County, Anna Maria Island had a millage rate of 2.0500 in both 2020 and 2021. For the Town of Bradenton Beach, the millage for 2020 and 2021 was 2.3329; and for Holmes Beach, the millage in 2020 was 2.2500, while it was 2.1144 in 2021.

However, among Lee County municipalities, the Town of Estero had a 2020 millage rate of 0.7726; for 2021, it was 0.7700. For Bonita Springs, the millage rate for both 2020 and 2021 was 0.8173.

Estero, which was incorporated at the end of 2014, its website notes, was among the last communities in Florida to achieve that status, based on data from the Florida League of Cities. Its population is 32,220. Bonita Springs’ population, according to the results of the 2020 Census, was 53,820.

As the News-Press reported in January 2015, Estero was the first Southwest Florida municipality to be created since 1999, when Bonita Springs became a city.

The 2021 feasibility study for the Town of Siesta Key projected a population of 9,094 in the 2023 fiscal year, which will begin on Oct. 1. The 2020 Census put the total island population at 5,454; yet, concerns have arisen nationwide that the fact that the Census was conducted during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic produced inaccurate results in many cases.

A slide that Hensey and Save Siesta Key Vice Chair Tracy Jackson showed the July 13 Zoom participants said that the leaders of the nonprofit recognize “the political process and [know] we need to also get through the House and Senate …”

That slide also explained that the 0.5 mills would represent $500 per year for every $1 million of property value.

After the new feasibility study has been filed, Hensey said, representatives of various state agencies and legislative staff will review it and “kick questions [and concerns] back to us,” as they did last year, in Save Siesta Key’s first attempt to navigate the incorporation process.

He voiced confidence that the feasibility study would generate little concern this year among those state staff members, just as it did last year.

Additionally, Save Siesta Key’s board members expect that the four members of the 2022 county Legislative Delegation will vote in December on whether to authorize the filing of the “local bill” for Siesta Key incorporation in the 2023 legislative session, which will begin on March 7, 2023 and run through May 5, 2023. Three of them must favor the idea for it to move forward, Hensey said.

Then, the local bill would have to win passage in the Florida House, Hensey continued, before it was brought up in the Senate.

“Local bills are rarely opposed” by the Florida House and Senate, he explained. The incorporation of the island “really isn’t a state issue; it’s a local issue.”

Finally, if the bill won passage in the Legislature, Hensey said, Gov. Ron DeSantis would have to sign it before a referendum could be scheduled on whether Siesta Key voters want to see the majority of the island become a new town. The northernmost section of the Key — Bay Island — is part of the City of Sarasota; it is not included in the incorporation plans.

During the referendum — which would be planned as part of the Nov. 7, 2023 General Referendum ballot — 50% plus one citizen would have to vote in favor of the incorporation question for it to succeed, a Save Siesta Key slide showed.

If the measure passed, Hensey said, a Special Election likely would be conducted in March 2024 to elect the five proposed town commissioners.

“Our goal is to give you the choice,” he told the participants in the Zoom session.

As Save Siesta Key leaders have pointed out over the past year, incorporation would allow island residents to govern the Key as they feel best. None of the Sarasota County commissioners lives on the island, Hensey added, and they “rarely come here.”

Update on the County Delegation

State Rep. Fiona McFarland, R-Sarasota, has agreed to file the local bill in the House, Hensey added, while state Sen. Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota, would champion the measure in the Senate.

Both of them, he emphasized, have been staunch supporters of the incorporation effort. They affirmed that in recent meetings with Save Siesta Key representatives, Hensey added.

Referring to McFarland, Hensey said, “She is passionate about Siesta Key becoming its own town.”

Hensey did acknowledge that both McFarland and Gruters have opponents in their respective races this year. However, he indicated his belief that both will prevail. “Incumbents are typically heavily favored.”

Further, he said, while the Sarasota County Legislative Delegation had six members in 2021, this year, it will have only four. That is a result of the redrawing of House and Senate district lines following the release of the 2020 Census data.

Unlike McFarland and Gruters, Hensey added, a new member of the Delegation — Rep. Mike Grant, a Port Charlotte Republican — and Rep. James Buchanan, R-Osprey, have no opposition for their seats.

Save Siesta Key leaders recently talked with Grant, Hensey continued. “We’ve had a very favorable meeting,” he added, though Grant “did challenge us with a lot of questions.”

Hensey then noted, “The feedback was he was satisfied with our answers. … We feel we will get [Grant’s] commitment.”
This is Grant’s last term in the Legislature, Hensey pointed out. “He can vote however his mind guides him to vote,” without having to worry about repercussions from legislative leadership.

As for Buchanan: Hensey told the participants that McFarland and Gruters believe the Save Siesta Key leadership can address the concerns that Buchanan raised about incorporation last year “and get him on our team.”

“We feel good momentum,” Hensey said.

Along with having to convince fewer county Delegation members, he continued, the Save Siesta Key board is optimistic about the new leaders of the Florida House and Senate for the 2023 session. Last year, he added, the Save Siesta Key directors felt that the Speaker of the House, Rep. Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, posed “a big hurdle” to their efforts.

In May, Hensey told members of the Siesta Key Association that Sprowls was “just ironclad [in advocating for] no new taxes, no new government, no matter what”.

In response to a July 13 question from a participant in the Zoom session, Hensey voiced enthusiasm about the potential of a letter-writing campaign to encourage the new members of the Sarasota County Legislative Delegation to approve the local bill for incorporation. Letters would be especially helpful in convincing Buchanan, he added. “I’d love to see [him] get 400,” Hensey continued.

Replying to a follow-up question, Hensey said that he believes individual letters to the Delegation members — instead of copies of a form letter — would be more effective.

Yet another suggestion last year — from then-county Delegation member Rep. Tommy Gregory, R-Sarasota — was that Save Siesta Key conduct a “non-binding straw vote” on incorporation, Hensey noted. The nonprofit’s board members have been discussing that potential, he continued. “Our lobbyist believes he can get that done.”

The News Leader checked with the staff of the Sarasota County Supervisor of Elections Office about the potential of getting such a straw poll on the Nov. 8 General Election ballot. In a July 26 email, Paul Donnelly, director of communications and voter outreach for that office, responded that Tuesday, Aug. 9, is the final day for Supervisor of Elections Ron Turner to accept ballot language for the fall ballot.

Hensey had indicated to the Zoom meeting participants that the County Commission would have to approve the ballot language, even if the referendum were non-binding. However, the commission is on its summer break through the week of Aug. 8. Its first regular meeting upon its return is set for Aug. 30.

Further, Hensey explained that the Save Siesta Key directors have engaged a new lobbyist after interviewing people from what they believed to be the three top lobbying firms in the state.

In fact, Hensey said, the lobbyist the nonprofit has hired is an individual he worked with during his business career. “I knew the kind of effort we were going to get out of him.”
If the Sarasota County Delegation votes in favor of filing the local bill for incorporation, Hensey added, the nonprofit likely would hire a second lobbyist to work on passage of that bill.

Pleas for funding support and petitions

In addressing another aspect of the nonprofit’s efforts, Hensey told the Zoom audience that Save Siesta Key needs money.

Last year, he noted, the organization raised about $120,000. “We’re going to need another $100,000 to get through this process.”

Vice Chair Jackson emphasized, “We’re very conservative with our funds.”

A box on the Save Siesta Key website says the 2022 fundraising goal is $95,000. As of early afternoon on July 26, The Sarasota News Leader found that $19,837 had been raised from 63 donations. A link in that box allows an individual to go to another page, where the person can click on a particular amount provided or a box with the words, “Custom Amount.”

Later during the Zoom presentation, Hensey emphasized, “We really need your money. … At the end of August, we run out of money. … It would be a shame to get to Tallahassee and not have the money to complete the task.”

If a person wants to send a check to Save Siesta Key, the address is PO Box 35214, Siesta Key, FL 34242.

The nonprofit’s webpages do point out that, since Save Siesta Key is not a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, the donations are not tax-deductible.

Another big need, Hensey continued, is “ambassadors” who are willing to talk with their neighbors in single-family home communities or condominium complexes on the Key. The organization has “roughly about 20” ambassadors, he added.

He and Jackson showed the Zoom participants a slide listing the neighborhoods that already have ambassadors.

Those are Sandy Hook, Island Circle, Waterside East, Dolphin Bay, Gulf and Bay Club, Peppertree, Excelsior, Midnight Cove II, Midnight Cove and the Sanderling Club.

Persons living elsewhere on the island who are willing to help would be most welcome, Hensey said.

Anyone interested may email info@savesiestakey.org, Jackson pointed out.

In response to another question, Hensey and Jackson said that anyone on the Key who signed a petition last year in support of a referendum on incorporation does not need to sign a new one. All of the 2021 petitions still are valid, they emphasized.

However, in response to a follow-up question, Hensey said that the more registered voters on the island who sign the petitions, the better. Although the state law governing incorporation does not require a presentation of petitions as part of the process, he stressed, members of the county Delegation last year indicated that a significant number of petitions signed by registered Siesta voters would be a good sign of support for a referendum, as the Delegation members considered whether to allow the filing of the necessary local bill.

Hensey characterized an abundance of petitions as “simply a bargaining chip” with the Delegation and, potentially, with other members of the Florida House and Senate.