Leaders of Siesta Key incorporation effort to launch another try this summer

New chair of nonprofit talks about frustrations with 2021 process and expresses doubt about support for annexation of most of island into City of Sarasota

Tim Hensey. Image from the Save Siesta Key website

The leaders of the nonprofit organization that worked for incorporation of the portion of Siesta Key within Sarasota County jurisdiction will launch another attempt this summer to create the Town of Siesta Key, the new chair of Save Siesta Key told members of the Siesta Key Association (SKA) on Feb. 3.

In the meantime, Tim Hensey said, he and SKA President Catherine Luckner are planning to be among six representatives of island organizations — including the Siesta Key Condominium Council and the Siesta Key Coalition — who are scheduled to meet with Sarasota Mayor Erik Arroyo and City Manager Marlon Brown to discuss Arroyo’s proposal regarding the potential of the city’s annexing the rest of the barrier island.

About 110 homes on Bay Island, on the northernmost part of Siesta Key, are within the city limits, Hensey pointed out.

In response to an SKA member’s question at the conclusion of his remarks, Hensey said he believed Luckner had put it best in an email: “We’re going to do a lot of listening.”

Two days after the members of the Sarasota Legislative Delegation voted 3-3 in early January to refuse to support the incorporation initiative, Arroyo put an item on the City Commission’s Jan. 18 meeting agenda, so he could raise the prospect of annexation. At the conclusion of the Jan. 18 discussion, the commissioners voted unanimously to approve outreach by Arroyo and Brown to island leaders to learn whether Siesta residents would be interested in becoming city residents.

During his remarks to the SKA members, Hensey said he did not see how joining the city would work, especially with residents having to pay city property taxes as well as county property taxes. Nonetheless, he added, “I commit to having an open mind,” for the Feb. 16 talks.

As for the Jan. 4 Sarasota Legislative Delegation vote: Hensey said he believes the House members who voted “No” on Save Siesta Key’s request for them to begin the formal incorporation process had made up their minds when they arrived at the County Commission Chambers that evening in downtown Sarasota.

When Hensey asked how many of the SKA members present either attended the Jan. 4 meeting or watched it via live streaming, many hands flew into the air.

“Did you feel like our voices were heard?” he then inquired of the members. A chorus of “No’s” responded.

“Not at all,” he summed up the situation. He likened the Delegation vote to a “butt whooping behind a shed.”

The members of the Sarasota County Legislative Delegation sit at the dais in the County Commission Chambers on Jan. 4 in downtown Sarasota. File image

Save Siesta Key’s leaders learned that incorporation efforts “very rarely pass the first time” they are raised before legislators, he added. Usually, he noted, it takes two or three tries.

Making another go of it this year, for the 2023 legislative session, can be done “with relatively minimal expense,” Hensey pointed out.

Hensey also talked of the potential of establishing a political action committee (PAC), as leaders of such organizations often interview candidates and then decide whom to support for a particular office. Moreover, he said, “A PAC … can give a lot of money to a given candidate. … I don’t think on Siesta Key we’re ever going to get to where we need to go … until we get our wallets behind our voice and actually take some action.”

The island has about 7,000 residents, Hensey added. If a Siesta Key PAC could raise enough money to prove influential in electing candidates to public office, he said, then those elected officials would pay attention to the island’s residents. “That’s my editorial of how we go forward, potentially.”

This chart, included in Save Siesta Key’s feasibility study for the 2022 Legislature, shows projected revenue for the Town of Siesta Key over five years. Image from the Save Siesta Key website

In the meantime, he continued, the nonprofit is working to put new members on its board. One person who has joined, he said, is a lobbyist who spends much time in Tallahassee, Jodie Tierney. Although Save Siesta Key hired a lobbyist who was recommended by William Underwood, the consultant who handled the organization’s feasibility study, Hensey indicated that Tierney could take on that role, either alone or as a second lobbyist.

Referring to Jon Moyle of Tallahassee, who handled the role last year, Hensey told the SKA members that he was not convinced that Moyle was the right person for the job. “I don’t think our voice was heard” through that lobbying.

Jon Moyle addresses the Sarasota County Legislative Delegation on Jan. 4. News Leader image

Moyle told the Save Siesta Key board members several times that it was “probably less than 50/50 to succeed” with incorporation the first time out, Hensey noted, “and I think he was right.”

Additionally, he told the SKA members, Save Siesta Key hopes to add an attorney to its board, even a retired one. He said that he believes the organization suffered from a lack of legal expertise as it undertook the incorporation initiative last year.

Fundraising is yet another issue the board wants to address, he noted. “There are a fair amount of wealthy people on Siesta Key.” If Save Siesta Key can convince what he characterized as “the right people” to become involved with its efforts, they, in turn, could talk to their friends and try to generate greater financial support for incorporation.

A lack of give-and-take, one-on-one

During his remarks, Hensey also talked about one-on-one meetings that Save Siesta Key board representatives held with the Delegation members last year.

“We asked ’em questions, and we really didn’t get a lot of feedback from them.” If the board members had understood the concerns the legislators had before the Jan. 4 discussion, Hensey indicated, the board members could have been better prepared with responses.

Still, Hensey said, his “personal belief” was that the odds of winning the majority’s approval would have been slim. The speaker of the Florida House, Rep. Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, is strongly opposed to additional layers of government, Hensey continued.

Among the issues that Delegation members raised on Jan. 4 before casting their “No” votes on incorporation was the fact that state law says no new municipality can be created within a 2-mile boundary of an existing town or city in the same county. “We were told by [legislative] staff early on that it’s a technicality, a formality,” Hensey continued. All the Delegation members had to do was to waive that prohibition in the case of Siesta Key, Hensey added, referencing information from the legislative staff.

State Rep. Will Robinson Jr. makes a point during the Sept. 30, 2021 Delegation meeting in Sarasota. File image

Further, Delegation Chair Will Robinson Jr., R-Bradenton, voiced concern that the Town of Siesta Key could not function with a millage rate as low as 0.25 mills. (One mill represents $1 per $1,000 value of property.) “We met with him on two separate occasions,” Hensey said. Save Siesta Key representatives told him that the millage rate would bring in almost $3.6 million a year, and the town also would be getting revenue from a utility franchise fee, as well as funding through the Sarasota County penny sales tax — or “Surtax” — program. (During the Jan. 4 Delegation meeting, Rep. James Buchanan, R-Osprey, questioned the reliance on the Surtax money, as the program expires at the end of 2024 unless voters this November approve its extension for another 15 years; see the related article in this issue.)

Siesta Key’s total property value is almost $7 billion, Hensey stressed. Therefore, he pointed out, the Save Siesta Key directors felt the 0.25 mills would be adequate.

On Jan. 4, Hensey continued, Robinson also said he did not believe the salaries Save Siesta Key had settled on for the town employees would be sufficient. Hensey explained to the SKA members that he had researched those salaries before the feasibility study was completed.

The average town manager in Florida makes $84,000, he emphasized. The Save Siesta Key feasibility study called for the town manager to make $180,000 a year, with the finance director to earn $130,000; the town planner, $120,000; the town clerk, $80,000; and an hourly employee, $50,000 a year.

The salaried workers also would get benefits, Hensey noted.

Yet another complaint, he continued, came from Rep. Tommy Gregory, R-Sarasota, who voiced the desire to see greater support from Siesta residents in the number of signed petitions seeking the opportunity to vote on incorporation.

Gregory suggested that the leaders of Save Siesta Key get 50% of the island residents, plus one, to sign petitions. During the Jan. 4 meeting, Hensey told the Delegation members that Save Siesta Key had collected 2,360 petitions; 1,600 of them were from registered voters.

This is a copy of the petition that Save Siesta Key created for island residents. Image courtesy Save Siesta Key

The nonprofit had begun the petition drive well before it submitted the feasibility study to the Legislature, Hensey said. Yet, legislative staff informed the Save Siesta Key board members that state laws detailing the requirements for incorporation do not call for petitions.

Nonetheless, Hensey pointed out to the SKA members, Gregory “threw it in our face.”

Then Hensey pointed out that a House bill filed in the 2022 legislative session — HB 1035 — calls for any community pursuing incorporation to conduct a straw vote; for the incorporation initiative to proceed, the results must show that at least 60% of the voters in the area to be incorporated approve the effort.

“This is just more clear evidence,” Hensey said, that the legislators are opposed to creating new layers of government.

When an SKA member asked whether Save Siesta Key planned to try to get 50% of the island’s voters to sign petitions for the 2023 incorporation initiative, Hensey replied, “Yes.”

It was not easy getting petitions signed last year, he pointed out, as the island has many part-time residents. “I can’t promise you we’re going to get that 50%,” he said, “but we’re going to do a better job.”