Siesta Key Breeze’s success underscored by growth of ridership numbers; SCAT answers SKA members’ questions about dogs on the trolley and reliability of app; FPL burying power lines on the island; Sheriff’s Office substation leader reports on crime in January and crashes at Stickney Point Road/Midnight Pass Road; juveniles’ fight over allegedly stolen shoes leads to New Year’s Day stabbing in Village; and updates provided on city and SKA expenses in Big Pass case
With Sarasota County Area Transit (SCAT) having released three full years of ridership data for the Siesta Key Breeze, county commissioners once more have been figuratively singing the trolley’s praises.
During a Feb. 5 discussion about innovative ways to provide public transportation, Sarasota County Commissioner Christian Ziegler brought up the Breeze.
“That’s a fabulous service,” he told the consultant who was addressing the board. “It’s consistent, when it’s going to stop, where it’s going to go. I wish we had more of ’em. [The Breeze] gets used.”
“It would be great if we had the same sort of experience at a countywide level,” Ziegler added, with no long waits for buses.
Ziegler joked that he was surprised Commissioner Alan Maio had not brought up the trolley during the discussion that morning.
In response, Maio said dryly, “I want to thank Commissioner Ziegler for reminding me … I need that.”
Then Maio told his colleagues that when he attended a Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce meeting the previous week, he learned that the trolley’s ridership had grown to 350,000 passengers a year.
The SCAT report on the trolley, a copy of which The Sarasota News Leader obtained late last week, shows how ridership has been building gradually. Although the Breeze did not begin operations until late March 2017, it still netted 160,166 passengers that year.
In 2018 — even with months of diminished tourism as a result of the red tide bloom — the total passenger count was 226,657. The biggest month was March of that year, with 34,848 riders, though April 2018 was not far behind — 34,458. (At that point, the red tide bloom was present off the county shoreline, but it was not producing the effects that would begin driving away visitors by August 2018.)
In March 2019, ridership hit its highest monthly count yet — 62,699, an increase of almost 80% from the previous March’s total. Once again, April was in second place, with 48,067.
This year, the ridership figure for January was 39,280, a 43% increase from the 27,469 total in January 2019.
Siesta Key leaders and business owners pushed for an open-air trolley service for years before SCAT staff was able to cobble together grant funding for it on a trial basis. Siesta supporters of the concept were convinced the trolley would prove to be a success.
Nonetheless, Maio told his colleagues on Feb. 5, “I can remember when I thought I was lying when I said to staff, ‘Oh, it’s going to be about 1,500 [riders] a month.’”
Maio has remarked on a number of occasions that all he could do was hope for the best — that the Breeze would gain acceptance among visitors on the Key and reduce traffic congestion.
Mark Smith, the Siesta architect who long has been a leader of the Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce, has said he believes that for every two passengers on the Breeze, one vehicle has been eliminated from the island’s roads.
During her organization’s regular meeting on Feb. 6, Siesta Key Association President Catherine Luckner told members, “We are advocating with the commissioners to find every way they can” to keep the Breeze running.
A trolley ‘sidebar’: pets and the app
“Are dogs allowed on the trolley?” one Siesta Key Association (SKA) audience member on Feb. 6 asked President Catherine Luckner.
“I’ve not heard that they’re not,” Luckner replied.
“I’ve been refused with my dog,” the woman said. “There’s one particular driver who doesn’t want a dog on there,” the woman added. “He claims it’s only service dogs [that are allowed].”
SKA Director Joyce Kouba promised to find an answer.
The News Leader also took the opportunity to ask Sarasota County Area Transit (SCAT) staff about dogs on the trolley.
A Feb. 7 response from SCAT, through county Media Relations Officer Brianne Grant, said, “The trolley has a policy of allowing Service Animals onboard, not pets. Lap pets or other non-service animals may have been turned away due to the driver’s concern over safety of the animal or the passengers.”
Another trolley-related issue arose during the SKA discussion. Two directors reported that the app launched last year — which was designed to enable passengers to determine how long a wait they would have for a trolley at their stop — has not been functioning properly.
“The app is not reliable,” is how Director Erin Kreis put it.
The News Leader also asked SCAT staff about those remarks.
In a separate email on Feb. 7, a SCAT staffer wrote, “There are a number of factors that affect the Trolley App performance. We have found that over time, glitches develop as mobile operating systems are updated. When this is identified, a call goes to the app developer to take a look and fix [it]. Also, weather and air-traffic (use of bandwith) on Siesta Key sometimes has an impact on the quality of the cellular signal between the bus and the app. And more recently, new equipment, for testing purposes, has been installed on one of the four buses, which has resulted in loss of modem on that unit. So potentially on any given day one bus is not transmitting its location.”
FPL burying lines in one neighborhood
Florida Power & Light Co. (FPL) has a program underway on the island that involves the burying of power lines, SKA President Catherine Luckner reported to members during their Feb. 6 meeting.
She indicated that the first news she received about the project came from a pediatrician who is a member of the nonprofit and who lives on Beach Road. The woman “has never called with a complaint,” Luckner added, but she was “very scared.”
Approximately six weeks ago, when the doctor’s children were home from college, they all were awakened about 2:30 a.m. by “what sounded like a big explosion,” Luckner said, recounting the pediatrician’s story. And “big bright lights were shining straight into all of their bedrooms.”
The doctor “went running out in her night clothes, thinking it was a disaster,” Luckner added. Then she saw “30 guys out there working.”
They were breaking through concrete, apparently, and tunneling underground, Luckner said. However, the pediatrician told Luckner she had received no prior notice about the work in that area.
“It was almost like an earthquake,” Luckner pointed out of the disruption. “It was that violent.”
“The machine that they use is big,” SKA Director Robert Luckner added of the crew members. They are drilling through rights of way, he pointed out.
“They were very, very respectful,” Catherine Luckner noted, when she and Robert — who is her husband — talked with them.
Catherine Luckner also said that she had been in touch with Lisa Cece, special district coordinator for Sarasota County, who is the liaison between county staff and the Siesta Key Village Maintenance Corp., which oversees the upkeep of the Village.
When the News Leader asked this week whether Cece could provide more details about the FPL work, Cece responded in a Feb. 10 email: “That program is called Storm Secure. I have gotten some information lately from FPL, and have asked if I can find out all of the areas where this is underway as it has an impact on street lighting, present and future. FPL responded that they cannot provide that to the County. These neighborhoods go through Design and then later Construction, so it takes some time in each area to complete [the work].”
The News Leader also contacted FPL’s public relations staff for this region, to try to get more details about the work on the Key.
George Bennett, senior communication specialist with the company, provided the following information in a Feb. 13 email: “Florida Power & Light Company has one undergrounding project under construction in Siesta Key. It involves 30 homes on Sandy Beach Avenue and is part of FPL’s Storm Secure Underground Program [SSUP], a pilot to study cost-effective ways to replace overhead power lines with underground lines in select neighborhoods.”
Sandy Beach Avenue is in the Treasure Boat Way neighborhood, which is on the northern part of the Key, situated between Ocean Boulevard and Midnight Pass Road.
“Construction began this month and is scheduled for completion by June,” Bennett wrote.
“Outreach to customers involved in the project began in mid-2019,” he continued. “Three other SSUP projects — involving about 50 customers combined — are planned for Siesta Key in 2020 or 2021 and those customers have been contacted.
“FPL has also been in contact with a homeowner association in Siesta Key that expressed interest in paying FPL to replace its overhead power lines with underground power lines,” Bennett added.
“With regard to the account of a resident being awakened late at night, without more information about the location and date of this incident and whether it involved an FPL project, FPL is unable to comment,” Bennett concluded his email.
FPL’s webpage about Storm Secure provides the following details:
“FPL is continuously looking at opportunities to enhance the reliability of our service in good weather and bad.
“In the aftermath of Hurricane Irma [in September 2017], we saw that the number one cause of outages was debris blowing into and trees falling onto our power lines. The trees, many of which were outside of FPL’s easement or public right of way, and were beyond where FPL trims, damaged our equipment, power lines and poles. Trees also blocked roadways, which slowed the restoration efforts.
“Since 2006, we have invested nearly $4 billion into the grid to make it stronger, smarter and more storm-resilient. These investments include hardening and undergrounding certain power lines. And, we saw how this benefited our customers by minimizing damage and speeding the restoration process after a storm like Hurricane Irma.
“That’s why we started the Storm Secure Underground Program, a three-year pilot project to underground certain neighborhood power lines — typically the power lines in backyards or side streets.
“This pilot will, among other learnings, help us determine how cost effectively we can underground these power lines to restore power faster after severe weather, as well as enhance day-to-day reliability.”
The webpage features a YouTube video about the initiative.
Crashes and crime
During his monthly presentation to the Siesta Key Association (SKA) members, on Feb. 6, Sgt. Arik Smith, leader of the Sheriff’s Office substation on the island, first offered a report that he had promised a person in January.
Smith apologized for not recalling the man’s name, but Smith reminded attendees that the man had asked about the number of crashes at the intersection of Stickney Point Road and Midnight Pass Road.
The Sheriff’s Office’s Traffic Division pulled that data for him, Smith continued. From Jan. 1, 2018 to Jan. 10 of this year, a total of 16 crashes were recorded at that intersection. The Sheriff’s Office handled the majority of the responses, Smith noted.
(During the past two, annual budget presentations Sheriff Tom Knight and his senior staff have made to the County Commission, they have reported that the Sheriff’s Office has been handling more and more accidents, with the Florida Highway Patrol’s manpower continuing to shrink.)
On Feb. 6, Smith told the SKA members he thought that 16 [crashes] “was actually pretty good … for as busy as that intersection is.”
He had no details about any of the incidents, he added, other than the name of the responding agency for each.
As for crime on the Key in January: Smith reported that the Sheriff’s Office received 308 calls for service, and only 18 — or 6% — of those involved what the FBI classifies as Part I crimes — those of the most serious nature.
The Part I offenses included three vehicle burglaries that occurred on the same day, Smith noted. Those were what officers call “smash-and-grab” cases, he added. The perpetrators saw valuables in the vehicles and broke windows to remove the items, Smith said.
Once again, he urged the SKA members, “Hide your valuables.” Put them in the trunk, the center console or the glove box, he said, so they do not tempt someone.
“Don’t leave that stuff in plain view,” he stressed once more.
Among the other Part I crimes were an auto theft, a robbery and a non-residential burglary, Smith noted.
The robbery case, he explained, “didn’t start out here.” As he understood the details, Smith said, that began with a road rage incident near Sarasota Memorial Hospital. “They ended up on the Key.”
A physical fight broke out, Smith continued. Then “one guy reaches in and grabs [the other guy’s] car keys … and throws them out of the car.” That constituted the robbery portion of the incident, he said.
The Sheriff’s Office personnel were “pretty busy out here” in January, he added. Business owners have continued to tell him, Smith said, that crowds are indeed large this season.
He also noted that it has been “very busy at the public beach,” except for a few days last week when the daytime highs dropped into the 60s.
Finally, Smith talked about the Sheriff’s Office’s annual preparations for spring break. When that begins on March 1, “We urge that everybody just calm down and pay attention to what’s going on,” Smith advised the audience members. For example, drivers especially need to watch out for people in crosswalks, he said.
From six to eight extra officers will be assigned to the island, Smith continued. “The horses will be out here as well,” he added, referring to the Mounted Patrol Unit.
Spring break “brings that extra traffic, just that kind of extra nervousness out here,” he pointed out. “Calm down and let’s get through this thing smoothly.”
When an audience member asked about the exact dates for the Sarasota County School System’s spring break, Smith replied that schools will be closed March 12-22.
The Manatee County Schools have about the same schedule, he noted.
Details about the aggravated assault
During Sgt. Arik Smith’s Feb. 6 report to Siesta Key Association (SKA) members, he pointed out that an aggravated assault recorded among the more serious crimes on the Key in January involved “a couple of juveniles [who] argued over shoes in the Village. … They got into a fight, and one of them produced a knife and, kind of in self-defense, stabbed the other one.”
Smith added, “That is probably one of the major crimes we’ve had out here since I’ve been … on Siesta Key.”
Smith took over as the substation leader following the late-April 2019 promotion of substation leader Paul Cernansky to lieutenant.
The Sheriff’s Office’s Communications staff kindly provided the News Leader copies of the reports related to the aggravated assault case.
About 6 p.m. on Jan. 1, in the parking lot of Hanna Plaza, located at 5221 Ocean Blvd., the report says, the victim “was involved in a physical altercation with Jaden M. Tassotti-Edbrooke,” whom the report identified as 16 and a resident of Sarasota.
“The argument was about a pair of expensive sneakers which were stolen earlier in the day from the victim,” the report continued. (The victim asked not to be identified in the report, as allowed by state law.)
“The victim contacted [Tassotti-Edbrooke] and confronted him about the stolen sneakers,” the report continued. “The defendant denied stealing the sneakers but agreed to return them to the victim,” the report added. The two agreed to meet in Siesta Village, and they ended up in the parking lot located at 5221 Ocean Blvd., the report noted.
Tassotti-Edbrooke “returned the stolen sneakers to the victim,” the report said. “A verbal altercation ensued between the two which turned physical. A couple punches were exchanged between the victim and the defendant. The defendant then stabbed the victim in the lower right abdomen,” resulting in a wound that was 10 cm deep and 5 cm wide, the report added. A trauma unit transported the victim to Sarasota Memorial Hospital, “where he underwent emergency surgery for his injury. The victim is expected to survive his injury,” the report said.
Sheriff’s Officer personnel located and interviewed two witnesses, the report continued. They stated that they had observed the fight and the stabbing, the report added.
“The knife was located and taken into custody as evidence,” the report noted.
As for the alleged theft of the sneakers, which led to that incident: A second Sheriff’s Office report explained that the victim of the stabbing attended a party on Siesta Cove Drive on Jan. 1. “The victim left his black and white Balenciaga shoes in one of the rooms in the residence,” that report said. “At some point during the party,” Tassotti-Edbrooke allegedly entered the room where the shoes had been left. After Tassotti-Edbrooke departed the home, the report continued, “the victim discovered the shoes were gone. The shoes were purchased on [Nov. 27, 2019 at Neiman-Marcus] for $846.30,” the report noted.
Surveillance video inside the residence “showed [Tassotti-Edbrooke] leaving with a red jacket which had something wrapped in it,” the report continued. “The victim called the defendant and confronted him about the theft. [Tassotti-Edbrooke] admitted to stealing the shoes and offered to return the stolen shoes,” the report said. And that led to the incident in the Village, the report added.
Tassotti-Edbrooke was charged with Aggravated Battery with a Deadly Weapon and Grand Theft, both of which are felony counts, the reports noted.
An accompanying document says Tassotti-Edbrooke was released into the custody of his parents, Courtney Lyn Edbrooke, 35, and Silvio C. Tassotti, 44, “pending the disposition of this case.”
The parents have separate addresses in Sarasota, that document shows.
Growing legal bills
In response to a formal request last week regarding the years-long litigation over the proposed dredging in Big Sarasota Pass, City Attorney Robert Fournier told the News Leader in a Feb. 6 email, “The amount spent on the Siesta Key Association suit originally filed in 2017 is $158,216.29.”
During the Feb. 6 SKA meeting, Director Robert Luckner reported that the organization had received a total of $6,900 in January to use for its legal expenses. Of that amount, he noted, $5,300 was contributed to the Siesta Key Environmental Defense Fund (SKEDF), which is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit.
The SKA established the SKEDF in January 2017 as a means of allowing members and others to make tax-deductible donations. Directors have encouraged people to make use of that means of supporting the SKA’s work.
In its 990 Form filed with the IRS for 2017, the SKEDF listed a total of $80,307 at the end of the line for “Contributions, gifts, grants, and similar amounts received.” The SKEDF paid $34,223 in expenses that year, the form said. (The 990 form is required of tax-exempt organizations.)
On its 2018 form, the SKEDF reported contributions adding up to $43,829 and expenses totaling $78,944. A notation on the form explained how that money was spent: “Promoted action of environmental challenges related to City of Sarasota application to dredge Big Sarasota Pass.”
The SKEDF had a balance of $10,969 at the end of 2018, the form showed.
The 2018 form was the last available for review this week through Guidestar, an organization that provides information about the activities of nonprofits.
During the SKA’s regular meeting in January, Director Luckner said the nonprofit received $20,000 in November and December 2019, which was about half of the amount it needed for the appeal it filed on Feb. 6 with Florida’s Second District Court of Appeal. (See the related article in this issue.)