Siesta Key independence fight continues in shadow of hotel development

Sarasota County

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TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — Does Siesta Key need saving from the larger county government that is Sarasota? Some residents say yes.

Siesta Key is an unincorporated town in Sarasota County with about 6,000 residents. The 2020 Census said the town had a population of 5,573.

Residents are attempting to incorporate to governmentally control themselves instead of bow to the county, a move that comes after the Sarasota County Commission approved two high density hotels to be built on the barrier island.

While some residents approve of the move, many have stated their opposition to the hotels is a way to protect Siesta Key and its charms. Eileen Jones, of Siesta Key, previously told 8 On Your Side reporter Allyson Henning that part of the problem is voters feel “completely disenfranchised from what is going on” in their government.

“We have no say,” Jones told Henning. “Our voice is not heard.”

Siesta Key residents formed an organization to incorporate called Save Siesta Key, and put together documentation needed to start the process of potentially going independent. They submitted a feasibility study to the state legislature in August, focused on proving they could strike out on their own.

Other residents have instead gone to the courts to contest the hotel approvals through lawsuits after the developments passed in late October. The hotels moved forward with county approval despite major opposition in public comment sessions with county commissioners.

Commissioners had approved the proposal for one hotel on a 3-2 vote, to the frustration of some residents.

In response to the study, Florida’s legislature labeled their attempts at incorporation a potential violation of state statutes and standards, and noted concerns both financial and statutorial.

A letter from the Florida Legislature’s Office of Economic and Demographic Research with an analysis of the feasibility study for the Incorporation of Siesta Key from August described it as violating “one, and possibly two, of the six statutory standards of incorporation.”

According to the legislature’s analysis of the feasibility study, incorporating Siesta Key would violate standards four and six, being a minimum of two miles from another existing municipality and incorporation that would honor existing solid-waste contracts.

“Additionally, EDR has identified concerns or deficiencies with respect to several of the Study’s 11 required elements,” the letter read.

The letter goes further, saying the evidence of Siesta Key’s fiscal capacity and data to support the need for incorporation and be financially feasible were concerning or deficient.

The legislature’s analysis cites multiple reasons for disagreement with incorporation, including that as mapped by the feasibility study, Siesta Key would not be subject to court jurisdiction. Another issue is more immediate: most of the services in effect in Siesta Key are provided by Sarasota County.

Taken together in their Standard 4 submission, those who support incorporation said they expect tax collection services handled by the Municipal Services Taxing Unit to continue providing its service, with the consent of the new municipality after incorporation. While the court jurisdiction was not addressed directly, from the state’s response, it appears the public agencies and services provided by the county serve to handle the jurisdictional issues and the element “was satisfied,” according to the legislature’s analysis.

Specifically, the county provides law enforcement, emergency medical services and fire control. However, a sheriff’s office substation and fire station were recently built on Siesta Key, satisfying some of the state’s concern over feasibility.

According to the submitted feasibility study and legislative analysis, Siesta Key would operate as a “government-lite” municipal power, expected to benefit from the economies of scale provided by Sarasota County and its government services, whenever possible. As proposed, all services that are currently provided by the county would still be provided, until Siesta Key’s incorporated government enters its own agreements for them with the county, or “negotiates contract services with other providers.”

The state took issue with how the study does not address the potential financial deficiencies or estimated costs for those interlocal agreements, nor how the new municipality would affect county revenue sharing.

Those in support of incorporation told the state that “Siesta Key intends to continue all services currently provided by Sarasota County, which includes fire, EMS, law enforcement, mosquito control, public works, solid waste, water and sewer, library, building inspections, and parks and recreation.” Siesta Key would initially “decline state revenue sharing” and fiscal impacts to Sarasota County would be limited to loss of some electric franchise fee revenue and some local government infrastructure surtax proceeds, which would instead fund the town.

Taking the additional information from the incorporation supporters’ response into account, the EDR said the element for Standard 6 had been satisfied.

In their final notes, EDR said the Florida Department of Revenue had not yet submitted its review of the study, which would be part of a “critical determination” for the feasibility as it deals with tax revenue and operational funding.

Still, success comes down to organization structure and money. Florida’s legislative analysis said in terms of funding, incorporation may be outside of Siesta Key’s means.

“The study states that many revenue streams such as utility services tax, communications services tax, and local business tax, typically seen in new municipal incorporations will not be implemented as these revenue sources will not be needed to fund Siesta Key’s operations,” the analysis said.

The study also “states that Siesta Key will receive first-year Local Government Infrastructure Surtax revenues of approximately $1.25 million, and this revenue source will constitute nearly 33% of total revenues” with an additional 39% of generated revenue coming from ad valorem taxes in Siesta Key. The status of a county-level surtax, which would renew in November 2022, has added to state concern over financial feasibility, particularly because renewal is up to voters, not lawmakers. Siesta Key’s “dependence on this revenue source” was the main point of concern, due to the potential loss of the funding. Incorporation supporters said that should the surtax fail to renew, they would lower infrastructure spending to account for the loss of additional funding.

All said, the main points of contention with approving next steps toward Siesta Key incorporation are largely financial and time-based, with financial viability a cornerstone of the move for independence.

To address some of these issues and hear from residents of Sarasota County, and more directly Siesta Key, State Senators Joe Gruters and Fiona McFarland will hold a joint town hall with other members of the Sarasota Legislative Delegation on Dec. 8 to discuss Siesta Key’s incorporation.

The town hall will be at the Siesta Key Chapel on Gleason Avenue and will start at 6 p.m.

Copyright 2022 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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