Manatee County property tax cuts considered a long shot

skennedy@bradenton.comJune 21, 2013 

MANATEE -- Property tax cuts this year are unlikely after County Administrator Ed Hunzeker announced Thursday his budget recommendation would essentially be the same as last year's with tax cuts or increases.

Hunzeker told county commissioners at a budget workshop Thursday at the County Administrative Center that he would recommend adopting the same millage rate the county has today: 6.2993 mills for a city property owner and 6.9102 for unincorporated area owners.

The millage rate is used to calculate property taxes based on property value. One mill equals $1 of tax on every $1,000 of taxable value.

Hunzeker suggested the board table all discussion of new electric franchise fees, which would have been imposed upon unincorporated residents, as well as transferring costs of sheriff's patrols in municipalities to unincorporated residents, since the cities already have their own police departments.

Those moves would have helped pay for property tax cuts.

"This was a three-legged stool," Hunzeker said, referring to his three-part plan, which largely relied upon voter approval of a half-cent increase in the sales tax to fund health care for the poor; new electric franchise fees; and the transfer of sheriff's patrol costs.

"We'll just go back to what you have today -- that would be my recommendation," Hunzeker said.

Voters soundly rejected the sales surtax for health care during a special election Tuesday.

Asked how he would fill a $9 million budget gap without more surtax proceeds, Hunzeker said after the referendum: "I have no suggestions."

One possibility is raising taxes. Support for that course has yet to surface.

"I am not in favor of an increase in the tax rate," Commissioner Betsy Benac said Thursday.

During the a budget workshop, Manatee County Sheriff Brad Steube also unveiled his $101.2 million budget request, up about $7 million over last year.

Steube wants $2.2 million to hire 20 deputies to help solve what he calls a serious understaffing problem.

"I wish I didn't have to come to you for more personnel," he said, noting county crime ranked ninth-highest among 67 counties in 2011.

In 2012, he acknowledged crime dropped 16 percent, giving Manatee County a better ranking of No. 16 in the state.

"I've asked to bring staffing levels up in order to bring the crime rate down," Steube said.

Hunzeker did not recommend fulfilling Steube's staffing request in the $517.8 million county budget proposal. It will be up to county commissioners to decide.

Other constitutional officers, including Supervisor of Elections Mike Bennett, County Clerk and Comptroller R.B. "Chips" Shore, Property Appraiser Charles Hackney and Tax Collector Ken Burton Jr., met privately with Hunzeker on their budgets and did not testify.

Hunzeker criticized

Rarely, if ever, in recent history have Manatee County government officials put on a public budget hearing without charts and graphs.

It happened Thursday night in Manatee County Commission chambers during the first public hearing on the 2013-14 budget.

Charts and graphs created for the hearing all included revenue from the hospital surtax, which did not pass in Tuesday's referendum, Hunzeker said.

So those were not shown.

"We will come back with the new revenue stream at a later date," Hunzeker said.

Commissioner Robin DiSabatino said after the meeting she was disappointed in the no-show county budget presentation.

"I thought we would have parallel budgets, with a Plan A and a Plan B," DiSabatino said. "But we only had a Plan A. They were banking on the referendum passing."

Linda Neely, one of 12 people who attended the 15-minute hearing -- only two spoke -- also said she was not pleased the county offered no numbers at the public hearing.

-- Herald reporter Richard Dymond contributed to this report.

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