Siesta Key annexation discussion to be conducted during Jan. 18 City Commission meeting

Leaders of Siesta Key organizations say Mayor Arroyo, who requested the agenda item, did not discuss issue with them before agenda was released

Mayor Erik Arroyo. File image

Two days after a tied Sarasota County Legislative Delegation vote ended the Siesta Key incorporation initiative that began in early 2021, residents of the barrier island told The Sarasota News Leader they were taken aback to see a related item appear on the Sarasota City Commission’s Jan. 18 agenda.

Under the New Business heading was the following: “Annexation Process — Siesta Key.”

The formal agenda request form says, “This item has been placed on the agenda per the request of Mayor [Erik] Arroyo. The process for annexation is outlined in the backup material and reflected in Florida State Statutes 171.0413, 171.042 and 171.043. Following is a summary of the procedure for a municipality to annex an unincorporated area: 1) Prepare a feasibility report regarding the plan to provide urban services to the proposed area for annexation; 2) Hold two advertised public hearings regarding a proposed ordinance of annexation; 3) Hold a vote by the City Commission on the proposed ordinance of annexation; 4) If the annexation ordinance is approved, hold a referendum on annexation at the next regularly scheduled election or a special election called for that purpose. A referendum can either be held only for residents of the area proposed to be annexed or for both residents of the area to be annexed and all other residents of the City.”
The form then calls for a discussion of the annexation process and a call for direction to staff.

Arroyo did not respond to multiple attempts by the News Leader to reach him this week.

“We’ve not been brought into the conversation [with city leaders],” Tracy Jackson, a member of the board of Save Siesta Key, told the News Leader in a Jan. 12 telephone interview. However, she said, city leaders subsequently had reached out to the nonprofit, which worked over a period of months to try to win the Sarasota County Legislative Delegation’s support for the necessary local bill on incorporation to be introduced into the 2022 session of the Florida Legislature.

Following the almost two-and-a-half-hour-long Delegation meeting on the incorporation issue, held on Jan. 4, Jackson said the board members felt, “We’ve got to catch our breath for a minute here.” They had conducted a number of meetings of Siesta residents, as well as rallies, in the preceding months. They also had raised a volunteer “ambassador” force to encourage residents to sign petitions in support of a referendum on incorporation, and they had raised funds to hire both a consultant to write the necessary feasibility study for incorporation and a lobbyist to assist them in Tallahassee.

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

As of Jan. 12, Jackson told the News Leader, the directors had not even held a board meeting since the Jan. 4 vote. In fact, she said, some of the directors were taking time off, given the intensity of their efforts over the past year.

She did share with the News Leader a statement from the board in the aftermath of the Delegation’s 3-3 vote, which she attributed to Director Harry Anand:

“The morning after the vote reminds us of a quote by President Teddy Roosevelt: ‘It is hard to fail but it is worse to have never tried to succeed.’ We must all take pride in the fact that we made our case forcefully, assertively and with passion. The spotlight that we all have put on Siesta Key by highlighting the issues facing this island will not go unnoticed.

“We are proud of the fact that this small community came together to take control of our island. This is true civic engagement. We filed a feasibility study, a charter and a bill in Tallahassee. Our State Representative and Senator sponsored the bill. We got them to hold a delegation meeting, where we had a split vote. This is by no definition a defeat. I agree that we have a road map for the future. We are confident that this community will pick up from here and make it happen.

Harry Anand. Image from the Save Siesta Key website

“I end by quoting from one of President Teddy Roosevelt’s speeches, ‘It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.’

“You all are the Men and Women in the Arena! You all should be proud of that and I congratulate you for stepping in the arena.”

Siesta Key Association President Catherine Luckner told the News Leader on Jan. 12 that, to her knowledge, Mayor Arroyo did not offer any presentation or comments to representatives of other Siesta Key organizations prior to the release of the agenda for the Jan. 18 meeting. She added that she was not aware of his thoughts in seeking the commission discussion.

When the News Leader reached Steve Cavanaugh, chair of the Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce, he said he expected to be meeting Arroyo for the first time on the afternoon of Jan. 13, during a regular session of the Sarasota County Tourist Development Council. However, as it turned out, City Commissioner Hagen Brody was present, instead of Arroyo, as the representative of the City of Sarasota on that advisory board.

On Nov. 15, 2021, Cavanaugh won a County Commission appointment to the Tourist Development Council.

Cavanaugh declined any comment about the Jan. 18 City Commission agenda item.

During a Jan. 7 telephone interview with the News Leader, City Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch said that, months ago, after the incorporation drive was underway on Siesta, she brought up the question of annexation during her remarks at the end of a regular commission meeting. Her goal, she said, was to find out whether any of her colleagues would be interested in investigating the potential.

Ahearn-Koch emphasized that outreach to Siesta Key residents within the county’s jurisdiction would be a key part of the process, to determine whether they even had an interest in becoming city residents.

None of her colleagues indicated a desire at that time to explore the idea, Ahearn-Koch indicated.

Many questions

During a Sept. 30, 2021 meeting of the Sarasota County Legislative Delegation, state Rep. Fiona McFarland, R-Sarasota, exchanged comments with Anand of Save Siesta Key about the potential of the rest of the island becoming part of the City of Sarasota, as the northern section of Siesta is within the city’s jurisdiction.

“If you incorporated into the city,” McFarland said, “you’d have a stronger voting block” with which to elect city commissioners.

This is a slide that Save Siesta Key Director Harry Anand showed the county Legislative Delegation members on Sept. 30, 2021. Image courtesy Save Siesta Key

Rep. James Buchanan, R-Osprey, asked Anand if Save Siesta Key leaders had spoken with city and county commissioners about the incorporation proposal.

“We have not had any discussions with the City [Commission] members,” Anand replied. However, Save Siesta Key directors had met with County Commissioner Christian Ziegler, who holds the District 2 seat, Anand said. “We had a very open meeting.”

Anand and the other directors have emphasized that Siesta residents want their own municipality. They have characterized that as “local voices making local choices.”

Luckner of the Siesta Key Association (SKA) also pointed out to the News Leader that SKA members who live on Bay Island, on the north end of the Key, are city residents. Many of them have told her, she added, that they would be eager to join the Town of Siesta Key, if incorporation were to succeed at some point.

During the Jan. 4 Delegation meeting, a number of speakers noted that the City of Sarasota’s millage rate is well above the 0.25 mills that Save Siesta Key’s feasibility study showed would be sufficient to pay for a “government lite” model for the first five years of operations of the Town of Siesta Key.

This is a chart showing taxes and assessments for Siesta residents within Sarasota County. It was included in the summary of the Save Siesta Key feasibility study provided to the Legislature last year. Image courtesy Save Siesta Key

Although a number of references were made to the city’s millage rate being approximately 4 mills, during the City Commission’s budget workshops last summer, the members agreed to approve what is called the “rolled-back rate.” The latter phrase refers to the millage rate necessary to bring in the same amount of property tax revenue that a local government collected in the previous fiscal year. The rolled-back rate reflects increases in property values.

This slide, presented to the City Commission in July 2021, shows the trends in the city’s millage rates over the decades. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Because of the nearly 6.5% rise in city property values in 2021, the commissioners decided they would have enough revenue if they kept the 2021 fiscal year rate of 3.1372 mills. However, the total city millage for this fiscal year — including that necessary to cover the debt service on 2015 bonds — is 3.3472.

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

This slide, also presented to the City Commission in July 2021, shows the proposed budget for this fiscal year, which began Oct. 1, 2021, compared to the budget for the 2021 fiscal year. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Conversely, the County Commission in late September approved an aggregate millage rate of 3.819 mills, which was higher than its “rolled-back” rate of 3.6262 mills.

A number of issues would need to be addressed if the City of Sarasota were to annex the rest of the Siesta Key. For example, the city has its own police department, while the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office has been providing law enforcement services to Siesta Key.

Further, the county has extensive water and sewer infrastructure serving the barrier island, including the Siesta Key Master Pump Station, which the county built to replace a wastewater treatment plant that had a number of spills into the island’s Grand Canal.

Moreover, the county owns Siesta Public Beach Park and the beach accesses on the island.

Regular City Commission meetings are conducted at City Hall, located at 1565 First St. in downtown Sarasota. File photo

The Jan. 18 City Commission meeting will begin at 9 a.m. at City Hall, which is located at 1565 First St. in downtown Sarasota. The annexation discussion is among the last items on the agenda, ahead of a final public comment period, remarks of the board members, and any matters that administrative personnel need to raise, including a discussion of business for the next regular meeting agenda.

The board members do take an hour-long break for lunch, usually close to noon.