Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

State report, county commissioners lay out difficulties for Longboat's one-county idea

Shifting Longboat into one county has for years been talked about. Now a state report, and a pair of county commissioners, make clear the difficulties in doing so.

  • By
  • | 8:50 a.m. November 17, 2021
Longboat Key is one of four Florida municipalities in two counties. File photo
Longboat Key is one of four Florida municipalities in two counties. File photo
  • Longboat Key
  • News
  • Share

Sarasota County Commissioner Christian Ziegler and Manatee County Commissioner Kevin Van Ostenbridge each said they would love to see all of Longboat Key in their counties.

And why not? Longboat Key is one of the state’s most affluent towns, racking up about $6.5 billion in property values in 2021, which was up nearly 6% from 2020. An $800 million condo and hotel project just broke ground, and an upstart social media company just announced plans to move its headquarters to the island as part of a $50 million plan.

But despite years of conversation at the town level and a measure of cooperation between the town and both counties on a laundry list of recent projects — and discussions about even more — both commissioners whose districts include the town say a switch isn’t likely soon.

If ever.

“I don’t see it changing,” Van Ostenbridge said. “As much as I would love to bring Longboat Key into Manatee County, I think that it is far too cumbersome a task to pull off.”

Ziegler said such a plan needs an influential leader to navigate the fiscal, political and organizational obstacles at the state levels, not to mention the county level on both sides of the border that runs essentially west from University Parkway on the mainland through the island just north of Bayfront Park, splitting the town roughly two-thirds in Sarasota and one-third in Manatee.

“You need someone to champion the next step, right?” he said. “You really need someone strong to push it through.”

State report delivered

At the town’s request, the state’s Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability delivered a report on Oct. 4 about the challenges Longboat faces in its two-county existence, for the first time organizing them in one document.

The 34-page report makes no recommendations, simply stating three options:

  • Maintain the status quo as a two-county town, like several others in Florida.
  • Consolidate into Sarasota County.
  • Consolidate into Manatee County.

Mayor Ken Schneier added a fourth: “I would say the fourth option is to not make any firm decision on which direction to take.”

And it’s not like the town population is clamoring for change. Longboat Key receives receive high marks each year among the residents who fill out the town’s annual citizen survey, a process started under Town Manager Tom Harmer to help set priorities.

“I think OPPAGA painted a difficult picture of Longboat Key trying to make itself go into one county, whether Sarasota or Manatee, that the process would be difficult — partly due to finances and partly due to politics,” Schneier said.

At the center of the issue are winners and losers. A one-county switch without some kind of financial settlement or land swap, as has been done in other towns in Florida, would ultimately cut into either Manatee or Sarasota’s bottom line.

“I would have liked to see a little bit of a path forward of, ‘Do this and then this and this’ to advance the discussions and the options and the recommendations, but they didn’t go down that path,” Harmer said of the state report, adding that all there is left is to continue discussions on both sides of the border, like the town has since then-Town Manager Dave Bullock raised the idea in 2017.

County tax rates

In 2020, Manatee County levied $32.2 million in taxes on Longboat Key properties, and Sarasota County levied $61.5 million, though Sarasota’s millage rate is lower.

For a Gulfside property with a $1 million tax value, the Manatee County assessment would be $16,992, and the Sarasota County assessment would be $14,904.

“In that example, you would have two homes in the same town paying two different tax rates,” Ziegler said. “So I understand why there would be a concern.”

Van Ostenbridge explained the rationale for Manatee County’s higher rates with some of the services the county provides. He said it includes islandwide red tide cleanup and upgrading sewage lines.

“Different counties are producing different levels of service,” Van Ostenbridge said.

While Manatee County handles the town’s utility water and wastewater, 911 calls in Longboat Key are directed to the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office.

“I think it all starts with the citizens on Longboat Key need to have their voice heard, right?” Ziegler said. “They probably play the most important role in all of this. So in the example of having one home paying more taxes than the other, once you realize that, and you start talking about it, you got to generate interest and get the word out.”

Ziegler noted a move to one county would also require getting Florida lawmakers on board. That requires legislative consensus from local and county leaders in Manatee and Sarasota.

The increased property tax rates aren’t the only financial complication Longboat Key could create if it were to move to one county.

School taxes

In the academic year 2020-2021, the School District of Manatee County received $13.9 million from Longboat Key property owners, representing 4.5% of the district’s property tax revenue. Sarasota County Schools received $28.7 million from Longboat Key property owners, representing 7.6% of the district’s property tax revenue.

At the beginning of the 2021-22 academic year, the town reported 71 students attend public school from Longboat Key. About 44,000 students attend public school in Sarasota; about 50,000 do in Manatee.

“For the money they contribute, I mean, we could put all of those kids on a Learjet and fly them to Dubai for a private education and bring them home every weekend, and we’d still have money left over,” Van Ostenbridge said.

Each school district receives a disproportionately high share of tax support from Longboat Key residents due to the high taxable value of properties in town and the small number of students on the island.

“It’s pretty wild how much taxes Longboat Key pays into the school districts on both ends compared to how few students (from Longboat attend) those schools,” Ziegler said.

However, Van Ostenbridge mentioned how Manatee County voters, including those in Longboat Key, voted to approve the continuation 1-mill property tax to help fund teacher salaries and longer school days.

Financial considerations
of consolidation

If Longboat Key were to move to one county, at least one of two things would likely need to happen:

  • A gradual payment from one county to the other to acquire the land, which includes the school district-related tax.
  • A land swap, though it could be difficult to find comparable land.

In a land swap, consider if Longboat Key moved entirely to Sarasota County. Property owners in the land Manatee County would receive in exchange would be subject to higher property tax rates.

Also, a one-time payment would likely be too difficult for a county to endure in a single fiscal year.

Longboat Key is one of four Florida municipalities in two counties:

  • Fanning Springs is in Gilchrist and Levy counties.
  • Flagler Beach is in Flagler and Volusia counties.
  • Marineland is in St. Johns and Flagler counties.

The OPPAGA report mentions a county boundary change in 2009 to transfer about 1,949 acres of unincorporated land from southwest Palm Beach to Broward. The counties also agreed to a one-time payment of $331,471.

The report also mentions a 2013 change when about 129 acres of residential land changed from St. Lucie County to Martin County. The counties agreed on a gradual payment for a 10-year period.

What happens next?

“If we’re not going to take a position, what are we going to do?” Schneier asked.

Schneier said the town will continue working with the counties, which includes Manatee’s $2.69 million to the town’s beach maintenance groin project at Greer Island and Sarasota County’s $2 million contribution to open Bayfront Park a few years ago.

Harmer acknowledged how it can be frustrating for Longboat Key town staff and residents to deal with two counties providing services.

“I think (OPPAGA) validated what we previously said,” he said. “A path forward would have been good, but that’s not the way they wrote the report, so we’ll just have to further our discussions with the two counties now that we have the report.”





Latest News