Six legislators will take up the issue, which if approved, moves to Tallahassee for consideration.
Sen. Joe Gruters is a yes. He said so in his closing remarks at a standing room only town hall-style forum Wednesday night on Siesta Key incorporation.
Rep. Fiona McFarland said she’ll sponsor the House version of a bill to enable Siesta Key voters to decide if they want to incorporate, provided the six-member local legislative delegation supports the measure with a majority “yes” vote.
That vote is now planned for Jan. 4, but the result isn’t assured.
Proponents of Siesta Key incorporation have been working most of 2021 on building a case for breaking away from county rule, following the path laid out by state statute to do so.
In September, Save Siesta Key delivered to state authorities the required feasibility study that included a provision for $3.7 million budget from a municipal tax rate of .25 mills, which translates into less than $100 on property with a taxable value of $460,000. In a so-called government-lite approach, the town would furnish the basics of governmental services, focusing on planning and land-use, and retain the other county services that already exist.
But it’s that tax rate, which would be one of the lowest in the state, that is the stumbling block for at least one member of the delegation.
Rep. Tommy Gregory, who represents District 73 in Sarasota and Manatee counties, said he had been a “hard no’’ initially on the proposal but he’s listening to a range of viewpoints on the topic. Still, he told the 300 or so people packed into the fellowship hall and surrounding grounds of Siesta Key Chapel, some arriving by shuttle bus from Glebe Park, approval by the full legislature and a signature by Gov. Ron DeSantis will be a “steep climb.”
Gregory, a Republican, said he has run on a platform based on his belief of fiscal conservatism. “No new taxes, no tax increases and no growing government,’’ he said. “That’s what I believe. It’s taxes, and it’s growing government by default. Now, I know that’s not the intention. You’ve made your intentions that are pure very understandable and compelling.”
He said the proposal would be more palatable without a millage rate of any kind. “It would be a lot easier to get people who are against any new taxes to go for it,’’ he said. “I don’t know if that’s a possible solution, but I will say your voices are heard.’’
Harry Anand, a member of the board of directors of Save Siesta Key, said his group’s feasibility study for incorporation was well received in Tallahassee and urged the delegation to take it at face value.
“There are no major red flags,’’ he said. “The feasibility study is solid.”
Anand and most of the night’s speakers focused largely on the community’s desire to put the issue to a vote, as evidenced by the crowd’s chants to that effect. Though recent Sarasota County Commission votes on land use and a pair of hotel projects have drawn criticism and a pair of lawsuits, Anand told the crowd the push for incorporation, which dates back 30 years, is more than just an emotional reaction to recent events.
“This is not about big government, this is about the right government,’’ he said. “This is about honoring the right to self-determination by all of you. True conservatism is driven by the love of what you have but at the same time tempered by the fear that it can all disappear. That’s why we’re all here.’’
Resident after resident took the microphone to make clear their support of incorporation and their love of the Siesta Key community and their hope to preserve the memories of better days.
“When we’re young, you always say ‘what is your life goal, what do want to be when you grow up,’’ said resident Ashley Cebak. “Well, I always said I wanted to live on Siesta Key. Because of what this is – this means more to me than anything.’’
Gruters said the path forward leads through the six state legislators who represent Sarasota County. Rather than criticize them, Gruters said, another approach might be better.
“Tale that energy, focus on the local delegation, and shower them with thanks and praise and ask them, all of us, to move this forward,’’ he said. “I’m with you and I’m going to be a yes vote.’’
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