The state of Manatee County: trending upward

February 2, 2014 

Manatee County Commissioner Vanessa Baugh, left, with County Administrator Ed Hunzeker, center, and Finance Director Jim Seuffert.PAUL VIDELA/Bradenton Herald

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On the same day President Obama delivered his State of the Union address, Manatee County Administrator Ed Hunzeker addressed commissioners about the state of the county in his annual report last week. Hunzeker described an abundance of positive economic and government developments with a host of January news reports bolstering optimism for continuing the trend.

Manatee County can celebrate improvements in a number of areas:

• The county's unemployment rate plummeted from 7.9 percent a year ago to 5.8 percent in December, the lowest figure since the middle of 2008.

While seasonal hiring, particularly by retailers, may have tweaked that figure, the bigger picture covers the entire year. The region's primary job growth came in trade, transportation and utilities with 2,700 new employees out of the 6,200 created in 2013.

Plus, manufacturers boosted employment by 1,400 jobs -- a remarkable 9.9 percent growth rate, the highest in the area.

• The county's economic development incentive program contributes mightily to hiring, with $437,000 in benefits to private enterprises that will help create some 337 "quality jobs" in the county over the next five years.

• Also on the growth of jobs, the construction industry is rebounding nicely with the number of commercial building permits rising 36 percent in 2013 and residential permits jumping 54 permits.

• More than 50 county building permit and inspection fees were reduced by 10 percent in October, another boost to construction and growth. Plus, commissioners approved almost $48 million in capital improvements last year -- for roads, bridges and other public projects.

• Tourism is accelerating, too, with the total economic impact increasing to $566 million, up 10 percent over the first nine months of 2013 from the same time span in 2012. The number of visitors jumped by 6 percent over the record-setting 2012 figure. All that pumps a lot more tourism tax dollars into promotional campaigns and visitor-related infrastructure projects.

• During all this progress, county government did not grow but continued the trend toward capturing greater efficiencies and streamlining services, taking a more business- and customer-friendly approach.

• Hunzeker also saluted the fact that county commissioners have either kept property tax rates stable or reduced them since 2006 -- even during down years when property values plunged and county revenue sank. (Property taxes only account for 30 percent of county revenue, with charges for services contributing 35 percent and licenses, fees, fines, interest and other sources adding 22 percent.)

• How well does Manatee County manage resources? According to independent credit ratings from 2013, Manatee's ranks among the top 5 percent of Florida's municipal and county governments for financial stability, saving millions for taxpayers.

• Moving forward, the county's "How Will We Grow" project continues to advance with commission approval of a new Urban Service Area and movement toward creating a broad southwest county tax increment financing district, both geared to spur redevelopment.

Public assets continue to grow, too, with the Blackstone baseball fields in Palmetto, the Robinson Preserve expansion and Neal Preserve restoration on tap for completion this year.

But Manatee County's toughest issue remains a work in progress, as we've opined on several occasions over the past year. How will the county fund community health care for the indigent?

With voters rejecting a half-cent sales tax referendum last summer and the county trust fund dedicated to paying those medical costs about to be depleted, this will be a difficult dilemma in the coming year. There are no easy answers.

All in all, Manatee County residents should be proud that their government has been prudent in delivering services, managing money and stimulating the economy.

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