Manatee County in good position with budget

September 1, 2013 

Manatee County commissioners are sitting in an enviable position as governments across Florida put the finishing touches on budgets for fiscal year 2014 -- many struggling with deep spending cuts or property tax increases to cover revenue shortfalls. But not here.

In early August, Manatee commissioners approved a tentative millage identical to the property tax rate from the past six years.

With property values up an average of 4 percent this year, the county will pocket an additional $1.2 million -- already earmarked for additional deputies for the Manatee County Sheriff's Office.

This is a welcome bonus that Sheriff Brad Steube estimates will pay for 12 to 13 new employees, down from his request for 20 positions. Still, he expressed gratitude for the new spending during austere times.

This stands in stark contrast with Okeechobee County, where a $2 million cut in the sheriff's budget will cost 38 employees their jobs. The Broward County sheriff is also looking at layoffs. Hernando County commissioners are debating a budget blueprint that carries the highest property tax hike in years. Similar difficulties are playing out elsewhere.

Over the past seven years, Manatee County has managed to survive an $82 million drop in property tax revenue while cutting spending $142 million. Under smaller government, some greater efficiencies were achieved despite the loss of 277 positions.

Manatee County Administrator Ed Hunzeker proposed trimming property taxes an additional $26 million for fiscal 2014 but that was contingent upon voter approval of a half-cent sales tax increase to primarily pay for indigent health care.

He then abandoned his recommendation that the county implement a franchise fee on electric utilities, common in other counties and municipalities.

Those changes in the county's revenue stream would have resulted in city property owners no longer paying for a portion of sheriff's road patrols. That, too, is off the table.

Otherwise, Hunzeker's recommendations on expenditures remain the same as first proposed in May. There is no growth in tax-supported programs, no new positions and no new programs.

Even with this austerity, the downside is county revenues are still not covering expenses, and the county will continue to dip into reserves for several years to balance the budget and maintain current operations, Hunzeker informed commissioners.

As the county grows, property values rise and tax revenue increases, the county will be able to replenish reserves.

But this is a delicate balancing act that requires discipline to avoid adding recurring new costs into the budget without eliminating others.

Plus, should the commission favor spending different from the administrator's recommendation, other programs must be cut or additional reserves must be tapped.

This year's increase in property values is a positive sign of a rebound in the housing and real estate markets. Many developers are busy once again both constructing homes and mapping neighborhoods. From 2007 to 2012, property values plunged almost 33 percent from the height of the housing bubble.

A stable, sustainable and improving market -- not another overheated, unrealistic boom -- would allow Manatee County government to return to a stronger financial standing.

County commissioners will hold two more public meetings on the budget, on Sept. 10 and Sept. 10, both at 6 p.m. in commission chambers. A number of budget documents can be found on the county's website -- www.mymanatee.org. These two meetings are the public's final opportunities to weigh in on spending and priorities.

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