Sarasota lawmakers nix plans to make Siesta Key into Florida’s next city
Image via Save Siesta Key

Siesta Key
The local delegation held a make-or-break vote a week ahead of Session.

Any dream of Siesta Key becoming Florida’s newest city died Tuesday, at least for this year.

The Sarasota County legislative delegation split 3-3 on advancing a local bill incorporating the island community. Without majority support from lawmakers, no bill will be filed in the 2022 Legislative Session.

“It’s very important that when we look at what we are potentially putting something forward to folks; it, in fact, has reasonable and realistic expectations of the future,” said Rep. James Buchanan, a Venice Republican.

The effort failed despite Sen. Joe Gruters and Rep. Fiona McFarland, both Sarasota Republicans representing the Siesta Key community, supporting the measure.

“We have a duty to evaluate the soundness of the plan and ask if it is fiscally sound,” McFarland said. “The question as to whether this is the city we would design for ourselves is a separate conversation.”

The incorporation issue has brought the Sarasota County delegation together three times ahead of the 2022 Regular Session. Those meetings, which included a town hall on the Key last month, were preceded by several steps by citizens in the preparation of the discussion.

The Save Siesta Key civic organization funded and conducted a feasibility study that looked at the financial potential of forming a city. Thanks to high property values, that study found an ability to support a $6.5 million budget with just a 0.25 millage rate.

Theoretically, that money would be used modestly, in what organizers stressed would be a “government-lite” model. The town would control planning and beautification efforts on the island but contract for law enforcement and fire protection with Sarasota County, among other services.

Harry Anand, one of the leaders of Save Siesta Key, said he had conversations with the Sheriff’s Office about improving law enforcement coverage on the island. Anand believes it can be accomplished at no additional cost simply by having a dedicated government coordinating the use of resources on the island rather than directed by a County Commission with a broader focus.

“There are no government relationships,” Anand said, “because there is no voice of the people of Siesta Key.”

The argument for empowering voters drove Rep. Michele Rayner-Goolsby, a St. Petersburg Democrat and the only Democrat on the delegation, to side with incorporation.

“This vote is very easy for me,” she said, “because I believe in the will of the people.”

For a city to take shape would ultimately require a vote by the island’s residents. But that vote can only take place if the proposal wins approval by the Legislature and gets the signature of the Governor. Before the full Legislature could even consider it, the measure needs support from the delegation.

There are less than 7,000 residents on the part of Siesta Key that would be impacted — all south of the Sarasota City line.

Rep. Will Robinson noted advancing the legislation required waiving a requirement in the statute that any new city incorporated must be two miles from any other city.

Rep. Tommy Gregory, a Sarasota Republican, expressed significant skepticism about the proposition. Both characterized the move as creating a new layer of government. He said he could support a potential vote only if legislation permanently capped the millage rate for the municipality at 0.25 mills and there was a realistic plan to incorporate the northern parts of Siesta Key located within Sarasota city limits into the new jurisdiction.

Robinson also questioned if the ambitions of incorporation truly matched the group’s goals. He noted that nearby island communities — like Longboat Key, Anna Maria, and Holmes Beach — have much higher rates, tax revenues, and more employees than Siesta Key planned.

“Are we setting up to fail?” Robinson asked.

Buchanan said he would be fine letting the community vote, even though if he still lives on Siesta Key, he would likely vote against a referendum. But his more significant concern was the plan for the community to derive infrastructure revenue from a county tax levy that separately must be renewed periodically.

Consultant William Underwood said the town planned to have just five employees and live on the limited budget proposed for at least five years. From there, it would ultimately be up to voters on the island in what direction the community grows.

One resident expressed concern Siesta Key would not realize its goals through incorporation because, unlike communities like Anna Maria, the economy of Siesta Key is directly connected to business on mainland Sarasota County.

Ultimately, frustration with recent Sarasota County planning decisions, including approval of new hotels on the island, drove citizens to action, and the vast majority of those in attendance at the meeting supported creating a city government.

Some noted discussion of incorporation has come and gone for decades. John Davidson, who founded Davidson Drugs pharmacy on the island, first heard discussion of Siesta Key becoming its own city as long ago as 1962. The county has since approved zoning districts and other efforts, but supporters say this is the best way forward.

Gruters said much of the angst comes from a recent decision in Sarasota to move County Commission elections to single-member voting, allowing planning decisions to be made by a board where 80% of members aren’t accountable to Siesta Key voters.

“This is not saying everybody here is for expanding government or increasing taxes,” he added. “It’s about returning the power to the community.”

Jacob Ogles

Jacob Ogles has covered politics in Florida since 2000 for regional outlets including SRQ Magazine in Sarasota, The News-Press in Fort Myers and The Daily Commercial in Leesburg. His work has appeared nationally in The Advocate, Wired and other publications. Events like SRQ’s Where The Votes Are workshops made Ogles one of Southwest Florida’s most respected political analysts, and outlets like WWSB ABC 7 and WSRQ Sarasota have featured his insights. He can be reached at [email protected]


2 comments

  • WhiskeyTangoFoxtrot

    January 5, 2022 at 6:18 am

    BAFFLEGAB CHAMP OF THE WEEK: Rep. James Buchanan.
    “It’s very important that when we look at what we are potentially putting something forward to folks, it, in fact, has reasonable and realistic expectations of the future.”

  • Carol shaw

    January 5, 2022 at 7:46 am

    As Siesta Key residents sit in traffic that stretches to Swift in order to return home or face life threatening motorists that dare them to cross Stickney point at Midnight Pass, they have one question, where is Sarasota County law enforcement? Ignored citizens are going to redouble our efforts and fight harder.

Comments are closed.


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