Unresolved big Manatee County issues heading into new year

January 5, 2014 

Now that the busy holiday season is over and the new year moves into full swing, it's time to focus on the future. Here are some of the major issues that bear watching in Manatee County.

School district recovery

The school district administration and board continue to grapple with budget problems, the latest being a state audit report issued in December that cites questionable spending in several areas with fines in the offing. The district's final response to the audit findings is due Jan. 16.

Plus, the district must submit an action plan to the Florida Department of Education by Jan. 17.

The district also has several high-profile personnel disciplinary and criminal cases pending. In the one involving inappropriate interactions with students by a Manatee High male school employee, five top administrators face termination proceedings and criminal charges. In the other, about alleged financial improprieties involving Manatee High's baseball program, legendary football coach Joe Kinnan and former Manatee principal Bob Gagnon face 10-day suspensions. Gagnon could be terminated under accusations in the first case.

These two cases will consume much time and energy over the coming months, further distracting the district from its primary mission. And deep community interest will keep them in the spotlight.

The past 18 months have been very difficult for the district, but we remain confident that this year the administration and board will solve the fiscal issues and put the focus back on improving education.

Indigent health care costs

Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act will remain a statewide concern with House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, and other key legislators standing firm in opposition on a weak argument.

In Manatee County, the cost of indigent care will become a more urgent issue as the fund from the sale of Manatee Memorial Hospital empties out sometime in 2015 as projected.

County commissioners and government must come up with a another solution after pushing a 2013 sales tax referendum that failed with voters.

An increase in property taxes will be difficult but rising property values may help fix the indigent care problem. The county collected more in revenue last year from those increases but not enough to pay the county's three hospitals for the medical bills that poor people .

Still, the county must lay the groundwork for covering indigent care some way. Medicaid expansion would help solve this dilemma by increasing the number of struggling residents eligible for government-paid health care. The Legislature should accept the federal offer.

Long Bar Pointe project

After withdrawing a big project proposal for Long Bar Pointe, developers Carlos Beruff of Medallion Home of Bradenton and Larry Lieberman of the Barrington Group of Sarasota will return with another plan at some point.

Will another 1,000 people descend on the Manatee County commission in protest, as happened last August?

That prime property along Sarasota Bay is already zoned for residential, and the developers plan to return with a project that meets the existing land-use designation.

Commissioners will be hard pressed to reject such an allowed development -- even in the face of massive opposition, should that occur again.

Housing authority travails

We'll soon learn more about the federal investigation into the Bradenton Housing Authority with indictments likely early in the year.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development already revealed that fired BHA director Wenston DeSue and ousted special projects director regularly worked less than 40 hours and billed the housing authority for working while the time was spent on personal excursions.

The housing authority board will discuss hiring a new executive director at this month's meeting.

The lax oversight and oversized salaries cannot continue. When HUD divulges the investigation's findings, Bradenton will learn the grisly details of this scandal.

Then the housing authority board must implement corrective measures and tighten policies.

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