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Will they or won’t they? Town of Longboat Key looks into possibility of leaving Manatee

At the same meeting that town of Longboat Key officials touted their sand-sharing collaboration for their upcoming groin project, they warned Manatee County commissioners that they were looking into the possibility of existing solely in Sarasota County.

The county’s response? If you want to leave, just say so.

“If your only purpose is that you want to be in Sarasota, say it,” said Commissioner Vanessa Baugh after hearing Tom Harmer, the town’s manager, give a presentation entitled “the challenges of being in two counties.”

The challenges for the town, which only about 35 percent of exists in Manatee, include paying an astronomical $12 million to the School Board of Manatee County for only 35 enrolled students, dealing with duplicate positions such as supervisors of elections and sheriffs and having to figure out funding sources.

In its 2019 legislative priority, Longboat Key is asking the Florida Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability for an independent analysis into the feasibility of fully joining one county over the other. Longboat Key officials said it’s a topic their constituents ask about often, but Manatee officials contested that there haven’t been discussions about how they can fixing those issues.

“I would like to see that shift because the state is going to want to know that we tried to solve whatever issues Longboat Key has and I don’t think we’ve really tried to that,” said Commissioner Betsy Benac. “Some things we can’t change.”

Commissioners from both bodies previously debated the subject last February, but Baugh didn’t buy that some of the issues Harmer listed actually causes headaches.

“It’s not that detrimental and it’s not that difficult,” she said to Harmer’s complaint of dealing with two elections officials.

When Baugh asked what the town would do without access to Manatee County’s wastewater system, Harmer pointed out he has broached the subject with both county administrators but that the town hasn’t taken any sort of formal position yet. The implication, however, did ruffle some feathers.

“It sounds like you’re implying that the county would cut off our sewer and water,” Longboat Key Commissioner Jim Brown told Baugh. “We pay for that water, and it’s a lot.”

Commissioner Carol Whitmore stated that she’d like to see Manatee do whatever it can to hold on to the town of Longboat Key, which they’ve partnered with for more than 60 years.

“Of course I don’t want to give you up. You’re part of my entire life and I don’t want to lose you to Sarasota,” said Whitmore, who lives on Anna Maria Island, just north of the town. “I love Longboat Key.”

It’s not a totally unique issue that the two governmental bodies are facing, said Commissioner Misty Servia. She recommended that the board extend queries to other governmental bodies that exist across multiple counties in the state of Florida for guidance.

In order to leave Manatee, the Florida Legislature would need to pass the legislation and have it approved by the governor. A provision would require any of Longboat Key’s outstanding debts to the county or the school district to be paid.

Ryan Callihan is the Bradenton Herald’s County Reporter, covering local government and politics. On the weekends, he also covers breaking news. Ryan is a graduate of USF St. Petersburg.
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