City has much to offer, Mayor Arroyo points out, though extra taxes could be a deterrent for Siesta residents
On Jan. 18, the Sarasota city commissioners voted unanimously to approve outreach by Mayor Erik Arroyo and City Manager Marlon Brown to leaders of the nonprofit organization that advocated for the incorporation of Siesta Key, to learn whether island residents within Sarasota County’s jurisdiction would be interested in becoming city residents.
They will report their findings to the other commissioners, they said.
“I think it’s an excellent idea,” Commissioner Liz Alpert said of the prospect of the entire island’s being part of the city.
Only the northernmost portion of Siesta Key is within the city limits.
Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch told her colleagues, “I’m not interested in dragging Siesta Key in, kicking and screaming.” Yet, she added, “I would be interested in exploring what … the options are,” especially whether the island’s residents would be receptive to annexation.
“We can’t do it against their will,” Arroyo responded.
If a groundswell of support exists on Siesta for annexation, city staff would need to research a variety of issues, including the expense that would be incurred by providing city services to those new residents, commissioners and City Manager Brown acknowledged.
Commissioners also acknowledged the potential that Siesta residents would reject the idea of annexation because of the city’s millage rate, which this fiscal year is 3.13 mills, as Arroyo noted.
The aggregate county millage rate for this fiscal year is 3.819 mills. That includes the 0.0688 mills that all county property owners are paying for the debt service on $65 million in bonds that voters approved in November 2018 for the extension of The Legacy Trail from Palmer Ranch to Payne Park in downtown Sarasota and from Venice to North Port.
One mill represents $1 per every $1,000 of property value.
The Siesta residents, like all the others in the city, would have to pay both city and county millage.
The city’s millage rate, Commissioner Hagen Brody pointed out, “is going to be a tough pill to swallow for some people,” especially considering the number of Siesta Key homes valued at $1 million or more.
In fact, during the Jan. 18 discussion, the solitary Siesta resident to address the City Commission on the annexation proposal — Lourdes Ramirez, president of an organization called Siesta Key Community — told the board members she was concerned about the city millage. “Taxes do scare me, I have to admit.”
Still, Ramirez agreed that research into the annexation question should take place. “We don’t feel heard by Sarasota County.”
Arroyo pointed out that, based on his research, the total property value for tax purposes on Siesta is approximately $6 billion. Therefore, he noted, the potential exists that the city’s millage rate could drop by about 1 mill if Siesta became part of the city. “That’s very realistic,” he said of the prospect of a lower citywide millage rate.
Nonetheless, Arroyo also acknowledged that the cost of city services most likely would rise, as well.
Brody also voiced concern that, even though the City Commission’s Jan. 18 agenda had been advertised for more than 10 days prior to the meeting, only one person from Siesta appeared to address the board on the annexation discussion listed under New Business.
The residents of the barrier island would have to approve annexation through a referendum, he pointed out. “There needs to be a little more excitement, in my mind, for a referendum to pass.”
Yet, Arroyo explained that he had been meeting with leaders of the incorporation initiative, which was headed by a nonprofit organization called Save Siesta Key. “They are open to it,” he said. “Everyone I’m speaking to is open to the idea. … We just have to demonstrate the value we can provide with that [extra] taxation.”
At the outset of the discussion, Arroyo told his colleagues, “The people on Siesta Key have felt like their voices aren’t being heard.” In fact, he pointed out, leaders of island organizations have told him that no county commissioners come to the meetings of the Presidents Council on Siesta, which includes representatives of all the primary groups on the Key, including the Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce, the Siesta Key Association and the Siesta Key Condominium Council. “Nobody,” he stressed, referring to the county commissioners.
Siesta is split between two County Commission districts. Commissioner Christian Ziegler of Sarasota represents District 2, which includes the portion of the island within the City of Sarasota’s jurisdiction; Commissioner Alan Maio of Osprey represents District 4.
Starting the dialogue
Arroyo was the commissioner who had asked that a discussion of the annexation issue be placed on the Jan. 18 agenda. That request followed a Jan. 4 tie vote by members of the Sarasota County Legislative Delegation on the question of filing the necessary local bills in the Florida House and Senate in an effort to allow the county portion of the island to become the Town of Siesta Key.
The Legislature would have had to approve the final version of the bill, and then Gov. Ron DeSantis would have had to sign it, before a referendum on incorporation could be conducted for island voters.
Members of the Delegation — including the chair, Rep. Will Robinson Jr., R-Bradenton — questioned the creation of what they characterized as another layer of government. Additionally, Robinson voiced concern about the fact that, to seek passage of the local bills, the Delegation members would have to waive a state mandate that no new municipality can be incorporated less than 2 miles from an existing town or city.
Delegation members also questioned whether the 0.25 mills property tax rate that a feasibility study had proposed would be sufficient to generate revenue to operate the town for the initial five years.
Save Siesta Key hired a Jensen Beach consultant to prepare the study, which is a requirement for an incorporation initiative, as outlined in the Florida Statutes.
During the Jan. 18 City Commission discussion, Commissioner Brody expressed the same view, saying, “I think [that figure] is unrealistic. … There’s not a municipality around us that’s under 2 mills, I believe.”
Brody added, “I think the assumption was always made” that the cost of services to island residents would remain the same over the first five years. However, he pointed to the fallacy of such an assumption. “Nothing is set in stone from one year to the next … [Service providers] can raise the prices on you overnight.”
‘A great gem’
In his opening remarks about the potential of annexing Siesta Key, Arroyo called the island “a great gem here in our area,” noting that many people already think the entire Key is within the city’s jurisdiction.
Because the city could offer “many, many benefits,” he continued, he sees annexation as “kind of an ideal partnership for Siesta Key …”
Arroyo noted that the city’s population is about 54,000, compared to 454,000 for the county. (The 2020 Census reported the county’s population to be 434,006.)
Further, he pointed out, the city has approximately 13,500 people represented by each of its districts, whereas the county has close to 90,000 residents per district. (The ideal county population per district would have been 86,801, the county’s redistricting consultant, Kurt Spitzer of Tallahassee, reported last year, based on the new Census data.)
Arroyo also talked about the work of the city’s appointed Charter Review Committee, which is analyzing the Sarasota City Charter for potential revisions. In March, that committee is scheduled to present its recommendations, with the City Commission to make the final decisions about amendments that city voters would have to approve during the November General Election.
One possibility, Arroyo noted, is that the city will make a switch to having citizens elect the mayor for four-year terms, instead of having the commissioners select the mayor each year from among themselves. The Charter Review Committee members already have talked about the mayor holding one of two at-large seats on the commission. Only three of the current seats represent districts.
Therefore, Arroyo explained, instead of keeping the other at-large district, the city might end up with four district seats. If Siesta were to be annexed, he said, one of those seats could be designated for an island resident.
“We also have significant protections for our barrier islands,” he pointed out. For example, the commission last year approved new rules to try to exert more control over “hotel houses,” which are homes in neighborhoods that have been built or renovated to accommodate large groups of vacationers. (Such houses on Siesta have been the focus of increasing anger among residents in recent years, prompting complaints about loud, late-night partying and trash piling up at the curbside for days before the weekly garbage collection on the Key, for examples.)
Additionally, Arroyo noted that density cannot be increased on the city’s barrier islands, except on St. Armands, “which is a business district.”
He further talked about the fact that David Tomasko, executive director of the Sarasota Bay Estuary Program, says the city “is the gold standard when it comes to water quality.”
The city’s wastewater treatment facility operates at Advanced Wastewater Treatment status, which means that any resulting effluent that reaches Sarasota Bay has far less nitrogen in it. Red tide research has shown that nitrogen is the primary food for the red tide algae.
Yet another positive factor for annexation, Arroyo continued, is the fact that the city each year contributes about one-third of the county’s Tourist Development Tax — or, “bed tax” — revenue, thanks to all of the hotels and other accommodations that charge the 5% tax. Siesta entities collect another third of the funds, he added. Thus, if Siesta were part of the city, the city “would have a larger bargaining chip for regional projects to get going.”
Arroyo also ran down a list of accolades accorded the city over recent years by a number of organizations and publications. For example, he said, The New York Times just put Sarasota on its list of the Top 52 places for travelers to visit in 2022.