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OPINION: Incorporating Siesta Key would better serve residents

The residents of Siesta Key have come to the conclusion that the county commissioners have lost sight of their purpose, which is to serve the people who have elected them.

This column, which appeared in the 12.23.21 Herald Tribune, makes it clear why communities have lost faith in the Board - all five commissioners were elected by a countywide vote, backed by dark money and developer dollars and influence. The article ties the mega-hotel issue on Siesta Key to the need for voters to have more control over planning and land use decisions that impact them.

Harry Anand, Guest columnist

Siesta Key is the crown jewel of our entire region. People come to visit Siesta Beach from all over the world, making it an economic engine for Sarasota County. In fact, Siesta Key contributes more than 8% of ad valorem taxes and more than 28% of the bed taxes collected by the county.

Yet we make up only 1.6% of the population of Sarasota County, and our barrier island is split between two county commissioners who do not live on the island – and who do not understand its needs. The reality is that the county has ignored Siesta Key for years, and that has resulted in:

  • Crumbling roads.

  • Unsafe sidewalks and bike lanes.

  • A lack of code enforcement, which has led to rampant growth of illegal hotel houses.

  • A lack of coordination with the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office regarding law enforcement issues.

The recent approval by the county of two high-density hotels on Siesta Key, despite the high level of opposition expressed by residents, was the proverbial last straw.

The Sarasota County Commission eliminated all density restrictions for hotels not only in Siesta Key, but for the entire county. One of the hotels approved by the county is a 170–room structure that will sit on less than one acre of land on a residential street. Even International Drive in Orlando allows only 60 rooms per acre for a hotel.

That's why the residents of Siesta Key have come to the conclusion that the county commissioners have lost sight of their purpose, which is to serve the people who have elected them. The commissioners do not engage with the community. They do not reach out to get community feedback. And they do not take community concerns into account when they make decisions that affect our quality of life.

In short Sarasota County is using Siesta Key as a cash cow without investing back into the island.

These pent-up frustrations over the years have led to a movement to incorporate Siesta Key and take our destiny into our own hands. We believe that the local residents who live on the island – the people who understand its needs and care about protecting this gem – would be better stewards of Siesta Key.

As required by the Florida statute, we submitted a feasibility study along with a draft of a local bill and charter to our local legislative delegation and staff in Tallahassee. The staff members did not raise any red flags in their feedback, and we answered all of the questions that they raised.

Our feasibility study uses a 'government lite' model that calls for us to continue to use services from the county and Sheriff's Office that we are already paying to receive. The Sheriff's Office has sent us a letter confirming that it would continue to provide its current services at no additional cost. In addition our feasibility study shows that we would be able to run the new Town of Siesta Key with 0.25-mil ad valorem taxes. This equates to around $97 per year in taxes for an average assessed value of $440,000.

One of the concerns raised by our local delegation members is whether we would be able to effectively run a town with 0.25-mil ad valorem taxes, which would be among the lowest in the state of Florida. However, there are two explanations for how we could achieve this.

First we already have almost $6 billion of assessed value, which raises a significant revenue with a low millage. In addition we would not be duplicating county services – such as law enforcement, firefighting and waste management – that we are already paying for and receiving.

The Town of Siesta Key would enter into agreements with the county to provide these services, thus establishing a vendor/customer relationship between the county and the town's elected members.

In addition:

There would be better coordination between the Sheriff’s Office and the Town of Siesta Key.

We would have control over our land use and code enforcement.

There would be money in our budget for infrastructure improvements and beautification work.

In other words Siesta Key would finally have a voice – and a seat at the table – with our county and state.

We have engaged in a healthy dialogue with members of our local delegation to seek their support for this bill. State Rep. Fiona McFarland has agreed to sponsor the bill in Tallahassee, and state Sen. Joe Gruters has also offered his support for it.

In addition state Rep. Will Robinson, the chairman of our local legislative delegation, has called a meeting for Jan 4 at 5:30 p.m. in the Sarasota County Administration Building. During this session, the delegation members will be taking a vote on whether to sponsor the bill in Tallahassee. We are hoping to get a unanimous vote in support of the bill because it would reflect the unity in the community for taking this step.

After the delegation vote the bill must be passed in the Florida Legislature, and signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis. If the governor signs the bill, it will come back to Siesta Key for a referendum by the residents. Ultimately it is up to the residents of Siesta Key to decide whether they want a new town.

We are asking our lawmakers and Gov. DeSantis to give us an opportunity to exercise our right to self-determination. Please, allow the residents of Siesta Key to vote – and to have the final say on this matter.

Harry Anand has been a full-time resident of Siesta Key since 2013. He served three terms as the mayor of Laurel Hollow, New York, and is the former CEO of Royce International LLC.

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