Leaders of Siesta Key incorporation initiative optimistic about success with second attempt

Sarasota County Legislative Delegation for 2023 will have fewer members to convince to file local bill, Save Siesta Key chair points out

Tim Hensey addresses Siesta Key Association members on May 5 at St. Boniface Episcopal Church. Rachel Hackney photo via Zoom

With the redrawing of the Florida House and Senate districts reducing the number of members of the Sarasota County Legislative Delegation from six to four, leaders of the Siesta Key incorporation initiative feel much more optimistic about getting a bill through the 2023 session of the Legislature, Save Siesta Key Chair Tim Hensey told members of the Siesta Key Association (SKA) on May 5.

“We have every reason to believe we’re going to be successful this time,” Hensey said.

Of the four Delegation members, he continued, Sen. Joe Gruters and Rep. Fiona McFarland, both Republicans who live in Sarasota, “said they’re solidly in our camp.”

Save Siesta Key representatives met with Gruters the previous week, Hensey added, and they talked with McFarland on May 4.

Hensey reminded the SKA members that the Delegation voted 3-3 in early January, before the 2022 Legislative session began, on Save Siesta Key’s request for filing the necessary local bill for incorporation. This year, Hensey said, a 3-1 vote will be necessary.

Along with McFarland and Rep. James Buchanan of Osprey, the other Sarasota Delegation member is Michael Grant, Hensey noted.

Grant is a Republican, as well, whose home is Port Charlotte. He was Majority Leader of the Florida House from 2020 to 2022, his Florida House webpages note.

Preliminarily, Hensey continued, Grant has vowed to be open-minded about the process. “We’ll see if we can solidify that.”

If Save Siesta Key can win approval of a local bill in both the Florida House and Senate, Hensey said, and Gov. Ron DeSantis signs it, then 50% plus one of the voters on the island participating in a referendum would have to approve of incorporation for most of the island to become its own municipality. (The northernmost part of the Key is within the City of Sarasota’s jurisdiction.) Then, another vote — either during the November 2024 General Election or during a special election — would be necessary for the members of the town commission to win their seats, Hensey continued.

These are the new Florida House districts including parts of Sarasota County. Image courtesy State of Florida

Some discussion has focused on the potential of expanding that board from five to seven members, he added.

Finally, a six-month transition period would be needed for the new municipality to be established, he said.

If the effort does prove successful this time, Hensey continued, the Town of Siesta Key could be a reality probably by early to mid-2024.

Rep. Fiona McFarland addresses the audience on Jan. 4 during the discussion about Siesta Key incorporation. File image

At one point in his remarks, Hensey also pointed out that Siesta Key may have only about 2% of the county population, but its property owners contribute approximately 8.2% of the county’s ad valorem tax revenue.

Save Siesta Key did employ a lobbyist last year to help its leaders work with legislators, Hensey reminded the SKA members. Jon Moyle is the only active lobbyist working in Tallahassee who had been through an incorporation process, Hensey explained; that was why Save Siesta Key hired him.

“I think he did a nice job,” Hensey continued. However, Moyle is “a lifelong Democrat. … We have a heavily weighted Republican House, Republican Senate, Republican governor.” Therefore, Hensey said, the question had arisen about how effective Moyle could be.

As a result, Hensey said, Save Siesta Key board members interviewed representatives of three other lobbying firms and then settled on the Ramba Consulting Group,headed up by David Ramba. That was not only because of “a very favorable financial proposal,” Hensey added, but also because Hensey himself had worked with Ramba for more than 20 years before Hensey’s retirement.

Further, Save Siesta Key plans to hire a professional public relations firm, Hensey said, to ensure better crafting of the nonprofit’s message.

Sen. Gruters also recommended that the organization utilize a professional polling firm to survey Siesta residents, Hensey said, with the results to be made available to the state legislators. If, for example, 88% of those polled voiced support for incorporation, Hensey pointed out, that could prove to be very persuasive for the Florida House and Senate members.

One other political factor that may work to Save Siesta Key’s benefit, he continued, is the fact that a new Speaker of the Florida House will be presiding in 2023 — Paul Renner, a St. Augustine Republican. The 2022 Speaker was Chris Sprowls, Hensey noted, calling him “an extremely conservative Republican.”

Incoming Speaker of the House Paul Renner. Photo from the Florida House website

Sprowls was “just ironclad [in advocating for] no new taxes, no new government, no matter what,” Hensey said.

Hensey speculated that Sprowls’ influence on members of the Sarasota Delegation in late 2021 and early 2022 was a significant factor in the failure of the incorporation effort to win sufficient support.

“We’ve had some preliminary discussions with Paul,” Hensey continued. Renner told the group that he would have an open mind about incorporation “if there are good reasons to do it.”

One big reason, Hensey pointed out, is that Siesta Key is the largest barrier island in the state that is not incorporated.

Throughout the state, he added, “There’s 432 cities, towns and villages … Why are they entitled to their own city and we’re not?”

He also noted that Save Siesta Key’s required feasibility report once again will have to be filed with the Legislature by Sept. 1. Further, “We think we need about another $75,000,” Hensey said, “to get through this.”

Additionally, representatives of the nonprofit have begun conducting neighborhood meetings, he noted, and the board is working to find more volunteers to serve as ambassadors who can contact residents in their neighborhoods on the Key.

Addressing issues raised by the previous Delegation members

Hensey also talked about Save Siesta Key’s efforts to address issues that Delegation members raised in 2021 and during that early January meeting.

This is a banner from the Save Siesta Key website.

For example, he noted, “A lot of people just felt like our core millage was just too low to be realistic.” At 0.25 mills, he explained, it would provide sufficient revenue for operations and leave “a pretty hefty contingency.”
In light of the comments, however, he added, “We’re considering … raising the millage just a little bit, not a lot.”

The 0.25-mill rate resulted from the feasibility study that Save Siesta Key was required by state law to submit to the Legislature in its quest to incorporate the portion of the barrier island within Sarasota County.

Yet another concern that arose with the previous incorporation initiative, Hensey told the SKA members, was the fact that the Florida Statutes say no incorporated municipality may be within 2 miles of another city, town or village.

Both Rep. Will Robinson of Bradenton, chair of the Delegation this year, and Rep. Tommy Gregory of Sarasota emphasized in January that the legislators would have to ask for a waiver of that state law for the Siesta Key effort to move forward.

Legislative staff in Tallahassee told Save Siesta Key representatives that that was an easy process, Hensey pointed out. The Save Siesta Key board members do not believe that will be an issue with the new Delegation, he added, “but you never know.”

Another concern that a Delegation member raised, he continued, was the fact that slightly more than 7,000 voters are registered on the island, but Save Siesta Key was able to collect only about 1,600 petitions from voters supporting incorporation. This year, Hensey pointed out, the goal is to try to get many more petitions.

A Save Siesta Key newsletter that went out to supporters last week said the goal is 3,500. That figure would represent approximately half of the island’s registered voters, the newsletter noted.

In late April, as the News Leader reported, the Supervisor of Elections Office records showed the total was 7,235.

In their May 3 email blast, the Save Siesta Key directors wrote, with emphasis, “We are asking EVERY SIESTA KEY VOTER TO SIGN a petition and join our mailing list on our website to stay up to date.

This is one of the petitions. Image from the Save Siesta Key website

The update added, with more emphasis, “[P]lease sign a petition by going here. Petitions must be signed in ink and can be dropped off at either Davidson Drugs location or returned to Save Siesta Key, Post Office Box 35214, Sarasota, FL 34242. If you already signed a petition last year, thank you and there is no need to sign a new one. Please encourage your neighbors and friends to sign a petition.”

Another Delegation question that arose, Hensey told the SKA members, was how the Town of Siesta Key would use county penny sales tax revenue, if the Surtax IV Program wins voter approval on the November General Election ballot. (The Sarasota County School Board automatically gets 25% of the revenue produced by the tax; the rest of the money is divvied up among the county and the municipalities, based on population, county staff has explained. The Surtax III Program will end on Dec. 31, 2024. The Surtax IV program would begin on Jan. 1, 2025 and last for 15 years, county staff has pointed out.)

Hensey noted that the Save Siesta Key representatives explained to the Delegation that their focus would be on pedestrian and bicycle safety, as well as island beautification, especially on the southern end of the Key. One major goal, he said, would be to improve the appearance of the island’s entryways from the north and south bridges, so Siesta would look more like a destination with one of the top beaches in the world.

During the January Delegation meeting, Rep. Buchanan questioned whether the leaders of Save Siesta Key even should have included Surtax funding in their plans. It is not a given, Buchanan said, that voters will endorse an extension of the Surtax Program when they vote in November.

Along with Hensey, the other Save Siesta Key board members are John Davidson, Tracy Jackson, Steve Lexow, Gary Rodkin, and Jodie Tierney.