Three County Commission policy priorities to be reflected in questions on 2024 Citizen Opinion Survey

Reopening Midnight Pass, Environmentally Sensitive Land Protection and Neighborhood Parkland programs, and jail capacity issues to be the topics

This slide provides information about the respondents who participated in the 2023 Sarasota County Citizen Opinion Survey. Image courtesy Sarasota County

With no objections or alternates raised, the Sarasota County commissioners on May 7 gave their consensus to staff’s suggested inclusion of three questions on this year’s Citizen Opinion Survey that reflect policy priorities.

Jamie Carson, director of the county’s Communications Department, noted that this survey will be the county’s 33rd. Staff partners with the University of South Florida (USF) and the HCP firm in Tampa in the initiative, she also pointed out. Angela Crist, director of USF’s Institute of Government, and Joshua Scacco, associate chair of USF’s Department of Communications, were in the audience for the board meeting that day, Carson added, along with Jack Smith of HCP.

The questions Carson referenced will pertain to the topics as follows:

  • “Midnight Pass — This theme aims to evaluate resident’s opinions on whether Midnight Pass between Siesta Key and Casey Key should be reopened by the county. The pass was initially closed by human intervention in 1984,” a document that Carson provided the commissioners in the May 7 agenda packet explained.

Ongoing debate over the past decades has focused on whether reopening the pass would improve water quality in Little Sarasota Bay or whether unintended consequences would result, the document continued. Insights from the responses to the related question will enable county officials to understand the public sentiment on that issue, the document noted.

As The Sarasota News Leader reported in early March, county staff wrote in a Feb. 21 document, provided to the commissioners, that it hopes to have Phase 1 of a new feasibility study regarding the opening of Midnight Pass ready for a presentation to them on July 9 or Aug. 27.

The study is being conducted in two phases, the Feb. 21 report pointed out.“Phase 1 includes the identification and assessment of concepts and alternatives, not limited to a fully dredged tidal inlet to improve overall water quality [within] the Little Sarasota Bay estuary,” the report explained.

This graphic is included with a Sept. 14, 2023 post on what is now the Restore Midnight Pass Facebook page.

“The focus of this effort will be on the coastal engineering and process requirements for a hydraulic connection including consideration of the State and Federal regulatory requirements and constraints,” the report continued. The work includes a review of background information on the project; coordination with regulatory agencies — such as the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP); assessment of potential alternatives for re-establishing tidal flow between Little Sarasota Bay and the Gulf of Mexico; development of a summary of the efforts; and a presentation of the findings to the commissioners.

The scope of work for Phase 1 is estimated to cost $73,275, the county Feb. 21 report noted.

In response to a News Leader request for an update this week, Assistant County Administrator Mark Cunningham said via email on May 14 that a purchase order had been issued, “and a kick-off meeting [for the feasibility study] occurred on 3/12/24.” He added that the “Task 1 draft deliverable from consultant [was] received on 4/26/24.”

  • The second proposed theme in Carson’s document “seeks to understand community support for using County dollars to protect and acquire environmentally sensitive lands and parklands. The 2023 survey had a section focused on the fact that the county’s Environmentally Sensitive Land Protection Program (ESLPP) is set to expire in 2029. Three questions in that survey were designed to help county leaders learn whether residents were aware of that upcoming expiration, as well as residents’ views on how much land in the county is set aside as preserved, and whether the program is “a good use of County dollars,” Carson’s May 7 document pointed out. This year, the questions will be broader, the document added, so they can include references to both environmentally sensitive lands and parkland in the county.

“New questions may focus on how residents feel about further land preservation and how successful they feel the County has been in protecting lands,” the document continued, along with helping county leaders learn about residents’ support of the program.

This graphic in the 2023 Citizen Opinion Survey reports on the findings about the ESLPP questions. Image courtesy Sarasota County
  • “Jail Facility — This theme seeks to engage residents in their knowledge about the current capacity of the County jail and their support for Sarasota County to invest in a new facility to alleviate current overcrowding,” Carson’s document said. “Two questions in the 2023 survey assessed residents’ knowledge of the current capacity of the County jail and how important it would be to invest in a new facility if the County faced a scenario where the current jail was over capacity. The 2024 survey plans similar awareness and importance question follow-ups.”

In January, the commissioners directed staff to proceed with preliminary planning for a referendum on the 2026 General Election ballot; citizens would vote on whether the county could exceed its Charter financing limit by issuing bonds to pay for a new correctional facility in downtown Sarasota, plus long-needed renovations of the oldest section of the jail.

Weekly documentation of the jail’s population has continued to show that it exceeds the 836 inmate capacity for which it was designed. In fact, the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office’s 2023 Annual Report said the average daily population in the jail was 1,022.

Keeping the survey to about 15 minutes

This graphic shows the breakdown of responses to the county’s 2021 Citizen Opinion Survey question about Single-Member Districts. It is one example of past questions that county commissioners have requested staff to include in the survey. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Carson also told the board on May 7 that staff generally tries to limit the county’s request for extra questions to no more than three, as a means of helping keep the time for someone to take the survey to approximately 15 minutes.

Commissioner Joe Neunder, who has been the staunchest board advocate for reopening Midnight Pass, said he found the proposed topics “spot on.”

He added that he believed his board colleagues also would think “very passionately” about the inclusion of the Midnight Pass and Environmentally Sensitive Land Protection Program and Neighborhood Parkland Program questions.

Then Neunder asked about Carson’s timeline for any suggestions from the commission for other topics or alternate topics.

“Today would be a perfect day” for those, she replied with a smile, prompting a chuckle from Chair Michael Moran.

Carson also pointed out that, about four years ago, the Communications Department, working with its USF and HCP partners, increased the Citizen Opinion Survey sample size to 1,250. “We utilize both landlines and cell phones,” she added, noting that a commissioner last year had asked how the survey takers are reached.

When Commissioner Neil Rainford asked Carson on May 7 whether she believes it would be easier to get people to participate in the survey if the list of new county questions was reduced, she told him that the maximum of three had not proven to be a problem. Once individuals begin the survey, she continued, they tend to finish it.

The 2024 survey results will be presented to the commissioners in September, Carson added.

Further, she noted that staff does keep the past surveys in an archive on the county website, so they are available to anyone who wishes to review them.

People also can call the county Contact Center at 311, Carson pointed out, if they have questions or comments about the survey.

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