The Town of Longboat Key is split in the middle, and there’s a tug of war over who the island should belong to. The south side of the key is in Sarasota County. The north side is in Manatee. And like Bob Marley’s hopeful “One Love!”—you know the tune, “Let’s get together and feel all right”—the Town of Longboat Key has launched the hopeful initiative One County to float the idea of uniting the key into one county. The first public hearing is Sept. 24 at Longboat Key Town Hall.
To prep residents for the discussion, town officials earlier this summer installed a link on the town’s website that allows residents to compare the property taxes they would pay if their home was in the other county. Most likely, because Manatee County’s tax rate is higher than Sarasota County’s, moving into Sarasota County would save money for most homeowners who live north of the county line. (Longboat Key Town Manager Tom Harmer says Manatee’s millage rate is higher because Sarasota County tends to have a number of special districts like storm water districts and beach assessments districts.) A 2017-18 fiscal year Longboat Key report estimated the savings at about $2.5 million for Manatee property owners if their properties were moved into Sarasota.
But the issue goes beyond money, says Harmer (who, until last year, was the top administrator in Sarasota County). It’s about being practical. “Being in two counties is a pain,” he says. “We have two supervisors of elections, two tax collectors, two emergency operation centers.” Dealing with duplicate departments during Hurricane Irma last year was particularly challenging. “Each county handles evacuations, curfews, re-entries and terminology differently. If one county is ordering an evacuation and one isn’t, it’s confusing to residents,” he says.
But you know where this is going, don’t you? One County sounds great, but which county is going to willingly agree to give up custody? Longboat Key is a cash cow for each county. Manatee County would lose about $22.8 million and Sarasota would lose $47.8 million in tax revenue if the decision went against them.
Maybe it should boil down to who’s been the better partner. Sarasota County, for example, contributed $10 million to buy land and then renovate Longboat’s Bayfront Park. Sarasota County also provided $400,000 for a black box theater to be built at Ringling College’s planned $18 million Arts, Cultural and Education Center near Publix at the Shoppes of Bay Isles.
But Manatee County has recently stepped up. This spring, Manatee agreed to pick up trash at Greer Island (aptly named Beer Can Island), a real
bone of contention between Longboat officials and Manatee County—and is making a $60,000 contribution to police Greer Island as well. Manatee is also participating in negotiations to help with beach renourishment on the north end of Longboat Key after it dredges Longboat Pass.
At the September meeting, Harmer and town employees will lay out the revenues and costs of moving the county line and then hope to schedule a nonbinding referendum for Longboat Key residents, most likely in March 2019. Two questions would be asked: 1.) Do you prefer to be in one county or two and 2.) Do you have a preference for which county you’d prefer to reside in? The poll results would be used to influence both counties and their legislative delegations.
In the end, any boundary change must be approved by the Florida Legislature. It’s happened in the past. The county boundary between Martin and St. Lucie counties changed in 2012, which moved 129 acres from St. Lucie into Martin.
When asked if One County is a possibility, State Sen. Bill Galvano, who responded in an email, says it’s a long shot.
“I have always had significant reservations regarding the One County initiative proposed by some residents of Longboat Key," Galvano wrote. "I do understand, and would certainly not want to minimize, the frustration of property owners with regard to differences in property tax rates from one county to the next, which I understand is one of the major concerns expressed by supporters of the initiative. A similar argument could be made in many areas across the state where certain neighborhoods border a county with lower property taxes. I don’t believe that shifting county boundaries is the right way to address concerns over property tax rates, and I have a serious concern about the precedent such action could create in our state.”
This kind of opposition makes One County less likely, but there may be other creative solutions that emerge. And if all that comes out of this discussion is a better relationship with Manatee County, Harmer says, “We’re better off.”