Concerns cited about low millage rate, few proposed employees and need for legislative waiver because proximity of Town of Siesta Key to City of Sarasota boundary would violate tenet of state law
For close to an hour on the evening of Jan. 4, in the County Commission Chambers in downtown Sarasota, speaker after speaker urged the Sarasota County Legislative Delegation to give Siesta Key voters the opportunity to decide whether most of the island should become a new municipality.
Among the last individuals to stand at the podium in the County Administration Center, Malcolm Lazin, the immediate past president of the Gulf & Bay Club Condominium Association, pointed out that only one person out of 20 speakers had voiced opposition to the idea of incorporation.
Siesta residents, Lazin continued, “want the right to decide on a very basic principle, which is the best governance is governance that is the closest to the people. We want the right to vote.”
Shortly before 8 p.m., when the six Delegation members took their own vote, it came up short of the four-legislator majority necessary for a local bill on incorporation to be introduced in the upcoming legislative session.
State Rep. Will Robinson Jr., R-Bradenton, chair of the Delegation, joined Reps. Tommy Gregory, R-Sarasota, and James Buchanan, R-Osprey, in opposition.
Rep. Fiona McFarland, R-Sarasota, who would have introduced the bill in the Florida House, had voiced confidence that the new Town of Siesta Key would “be able to get up on its feet,” based on its proposal for a “government-lite” model with five elected leaders and five full-time employees.
She also stressed that incorporation would be up to the island’s voters who live within Sarasota County. (A small portion of the northern part of the Key is within the City of Sarasota’s jurisdiction.)
State Sen. Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota, added, “This is about a community organizing to take back control … This vote is returning the power to the community — the residents of the community that live there. I hope we can come together as a Delegation and pass this and give the voters a chance.”
Gruters also emphasized, “This is not about expanding government; it’s not about increasing taxes. … The local government knows best.”
Rep. Gregory told the audience members, “I’m not convinced that this [incorporation] is going to do what you think it’s going to do, not at .25 [mills].”
He also noted that Save Siesta Key Director Tim Hensey had reported that the organization had amassed 2,360 petitions of island residents, asking that the Legislature and Gov. Ron DeSantis allow a referendum on incorporation. Of the signees, Hensey said, 1,600 were registered voters.
“Make your case a lot more persuasive,” Gregory told the audience members. “Collect 50% plus 1” petitions from the registered voters on the Key, he added.
(Barbara Bain, public information coordinator for the Sarasota Supervisor of Elections Office, told The Sarasota News Leader in early October 2021 that, as of that time, the island had 7,408 registered voters, based on answers to inquiries she made of the four precincts on the Key.)
Even though the Commission Chambers was full on Jan. 4, Gregory continued, “That doesn’t necessarily mean we would be representing the will of the people by putting this on the ballot. Fifty percent plus one — it’s compelling advocacy.”
Additionally, Gregory and Robinson emphasized concerns about the fact that the legislators would have to ask for a waiver of one primary facet of an incorporation initiative, as outlined in state law: The Town of Siesta Key would be less than 2 miles from the closest municipality, the City of Sarasota.
Jon Moyle, a Tallahassee attorney that Save Siesta Key had hired as its lobbyist for the incorporation push, had underscored the Delegation members’ ability to provide that waiver of the state law.
However, Robinson told the audience, “The 2-mile issue … is a big issue for me. … I think we’re setting ourselves up for failure, like Longboat Key.”
Early during the meeting, Robinson talked about the division of Longboat Key between Manatee and Sarasota counties, with residents paying different millage rates.
Further, Robinson expressed worry about the low millage rate proposed for Siesta Key, compared to rates of other municipalities, and the fact that the town would have only five employees. “I think the salaries [of those employees] aren’t market-based, either,” he said.
The feasibility study called for the town manager to be paid $180,000 a year; the finance director, $130,000; the town planner, $120,000; the town clerk, $80,000; and an hourly employee, $50,000 per year.
“I think there’s a better way than to create another layer of government,” Robinson said of the incorporation proposal.
Rep. Buchanan acknowledged the “many, many valid concerns” of island residents, including their frustrations with deteriorating roads, traffic congestion and the desire to undertake beautification projects. “For me,” he continued, “the question is, Is more government and higher taxes the right answer?” (Leaders of the nonprofit organization Save Siesta Key, which worked for months to see the Jan. 4 vote take place, commissioned the necessary feasibility study for incorporation, which settled on a millage rate of 0.25 mills for the new town.)
Moreover, Buchanan pointed to Save Siesta Key leaders’ and their consultants’ comments that night that the feasibility study included a reliance on the renewal of the county’s 1-cent infrastructure surtax, which will be on the November ballot, to fund projects that island residents want. “We need to look at whether this is a reasonable and realistic expectation,” Buchanan said, referring to the referendum later this year.
The town would be expected to receive between $1.25 million and $1.5 million each year from the “penny surtax” program, Save Siesta Key consultant William Underwood of Jensen Beach reported. (The funds are divided on an annual basis among the Sarasota County School District, the county and each of the municipalities.)
When Buchanan had asked how the Town of Siesta Key would use the surtax revenue — if the November referendum is successful — Save Siesta Key Director Harry Anand explained that the nonprofit invited island residents to participate in a survey through the organization’s website. The responses showed the top priorities are bicycle safety, pedestrian safety, beautification of the gateways to the Key, and general beautification of the island, he said.
The sixth member of the Sarasota Delegation, Rep. Michele K. Rayner, D-St. Petersburg, joined McFarland and Gruters in supporting the incorporation proposal. “This vote, for me, is very easy,” she said, “because I believe in the will of the people. We are elected to represent the people that we serve. … Who am I to tell you I know better than you about your community?”
On Jan. 5, Save Siesta Key issued an official response to the legislators’ decision: “We are disappointed with the outcome of last night’s vote, but we are not discouraged. We are currently evaluating our next steps and have no intention on giving up. We are so grateful for the support of our community and the volunteer Neighborhood Ambassadors. Save Siesta Key will continue to work on getting incorporation on the ballot for our island community.”
Facts, figures and frustrations
In opening the meeting, Rep. McFarland explained that the Town of Siesta Key had been proposed to encompass the island from the southern boundary of the City of Sarasota to Palmer Point Park, an area with slightly fewer than 7,000 residents.
The 0.25-mill tax rate, she continued, would bring in $3.7 million for the first year of the town’s existence, with the amount expected to grow to $4 million over five years.
Save Siesta Key Director Anand noted at one point that property values on the Key went up 18% in 2021. Therefore, he said, the expectation is that those values will continue to climb, bringing in even more revenue over the years.
The feasibility study covered only the first five years, Save Siesta Key consultant Underwood pointed out.
McFarland also explained that, if the Legislative Delegation voted to approve the filing of the local bill for incorporation, the necessary referendum would be on the November General Election ballot.
Then, if 50% plus one of the voters who participated in that referendum approved incorporation, an election for the five Siesta Key government leaders would be conducted in March 2023, lobbyist Moyle noted.
During his initial remarks to the Delegation, Underwood explained that the feasibility study called for the town to eschew any state revenue sharing funds and franchise fees available to municipalities, except for the money produced by an electric franchise fee in the county.
As for legislative staff’s questions about whether the town could function with just five full-time employees: Underwood noted that the Town of Loxahatchee Groves, in Palm Beach County, had only three full-time staff members between 2008 and 2015.
Nonetheless, Rep. Robinson said that five employees for the Town of Siesta Key “seems ridiculously low.”
The Town of Westin, in Broward County, started out with three or four full-time workers, Underwood responded. The number had grown to about nine, Underwood added, but the town’s population had risen to between 50,000 and 60,000 residents.
“I don’t see it problematic to have five,” Underwood said, if all of them are specialists in the areas for which they would be responsible.
Hensey of Save Siesta Key also pointed out that the City of Westlake, in Palm Beach County — the last municipality incorporated in Florida — approved a total budget of $3,693,000 for 2022. That compared to the $3,683,000 budget the Town of Siesta Key anticipated in its first year, he said. “They also have roughly five employees,” with Palm Beach County providing many of the services, just as Sarasota County would for Siesta Key, Hensey added.
Westlake’s millage rate is 5.125, Hensey noted. “I’ve said all along that the goose that laid the golden egg is our property values.”
Robinson raised another worry: “One of my biggest concerns is with law enforcement.” Even though Sarasota County Sheriff Kurt Hoffman provided a letter for Save Siesta Key, to underscore his commitment to working with the new town, Robinson pointed out that the county commissioners could cut Hoffman’s budget, if the Key were incorporated.
“I suspect they could strip the sheriff of funding,” Underwood replied, “but I don’t foresee that, initially.” Moreover, Underwood said, “Sheriffs are able to do things. … I’m presuming that the County Commission wouldn’t necessarily wish to harm the new city, and the sheriff obviously wants to assist in any fashion that he can.”
Robinson also noted that “only a handful” of Florida municipalities have a millage rate of less than 1 mill. The City of Anna Maria, in Manatee County, has a rate of 2 mills, he continued. Holmes Beach has a rate of 2.25 mills, he added. (In 2019, Anna Maria had a population of 719; the same year, Holmes Beach had a population of 4,243, the News Leader found through an online search.)
‘Let us fight for this in Tallahassee’
Before Robinson called the first person to the podium to offer public comments, he pointed out that, in the Legislature, if individuals who have signed up to speak wish later simply to show their agreement with previous remarks, they can do so by waving. Several times over the approximately 50 minutes of public comments on Jan. 4, Robinson read lists of names of people who waved support. The highest tally at any single time, by count of the News Leader, was 39 people. A short while earlier, Robinson called out the names of 16 individuals.
Taking an opportunity to make further remarks during the public comment period, Save Siesta Key Director Anand stressed that the incorporation effort “is not something that is a result of any anger. … This is purely [people wanting] their right to self-determination.”
Anand added, “Give us that opportunity. … Let us fight for this in Tallahassee. … We will not let you down.”
Siesta Key Association President Catherine Luckner and Robert Sax of south Siesta Key both told the Delegation members that a Sarasota County leader recently pointed out that Siesta residents represent only 2% of the vote in the county.
The implication, Sax stressed, was that island residents are “not important enough to listen to. This indeed is the very definition of taxation without representation.”
John Davidson, who was named chair of Save Siesta Key when it was founded last year, noted that he came to the island in 1958 as a young pharmacist. The first incorporation effort was launched in 1962, he said, because residents wanted water and sewer service, instead of having to keep using septic tanks. County leaders had refused to provide the infrastructure. Therefore, Davidson continued, island leaders established the Siesta Key Utilities Authority — SKUA — and paid for the infrastructure in 30 years.
Thirty years later, in 1992, he said, he became involved in another incorporation initiative. Ultimately, he acknowledged, “We ran out of steam,” and out of money. “There wasn’t a real reason to do it.”
Nonetheless, Davidson pointed out, county leaders did agree to work with island leaders to create a zoning code for Siesta. “Then all of a sudden, they changed that,” he added, referring to the County Commission’s 3-2 vote on Oct. 27, 2021 in approving an amendment to the county’s land-use and zoning regulations that eliminated the counting of hotel rooms for residential density purposes countywide. “We can’t take the county’s word for anything, I don’t think.”
“Land use on a barrier island is not just an issue, it is the most important issue, and we have no voice in it,” Mark Spiegel, president of another nonprofit, the Siesta Key Coalition, told the legislators.