Another austere Manatee County budget in offing

June 10, 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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In unveiling his budget recommendation for 2014-2015 last week, Manatee County Administrator Ed Hunzeker made thousands of government employees happy. After years of stagnant wages, the proposed 4 percent pay increase comes a year after an identical raise finally ended the long drought.

Once again, Hunzeker makes a strong case for the raises. Poorly paid employees leave for greener pastures, and the county cannot afford to lose top performers. Manatee County still pays workers less than the competition.

And the county can afford the wage hikes. With property values rising 6.76 percent, more than 2,000 new homes entering the tax rolls for 2014 and income from fees for services rising as demand increases, the county's budget is expected to jump around $7.8 million more than this year's fiscal condition.

About $6 million will be spent on raises for the county's 3,100 employees, almost half of whom work for the sheriff's office and other constitutional officers (think tax collector, elections supervisor, etc.).

Hunzeker intends to award pay increases based on performance, not an across-the-board 4 percent hike for county government's 1,600 employees. Success wins rewards, as should be the case.

On other matters, increased spending in state mandates -- especially in the Florida Retirement System and juvenile justice detention -- account for a large chunk of the remaining hike in the budget.

No new programs

Once again, the ad valorem rate remains unchanged under Hunzeker's plan -- at 6.2993 mills, stable since 2008. With a total budget proposal of $527 million (not counting Port Manatee), the 2014-2015 spending proposal flatlines most county programs and funds none of the budget suggestions proposed last year. This is the second year in a biennial process so priorities had already been determined.

With last year's growth forecast of 3 percent, the new budget factors in a rate of 7 percent -- a strong sign of the county's economic rebound from the recession.

Still, Hunzeker portrays this budget plan as another year of austerity amid revenue shortfalls that have not recovered from the heights of property tax revenue before the housing market crash.

Property tax revenue stands at 27.8 percent lower than the 2007 budget but only constitutes 32 percent of the total county budget. Charges for services total more, at 35 percent. Licenses, permits, fines and more add up to 18 percent, and other taxes (sales, occupational, local option) total 6 percent.

The county has been eating up reserves for years to pay the bills and maintain services and will continue that trend in the 2014-2015 proposal. This blueprint calls for another $15 million out of the stabilization reserves, lower than the current budget's $18 million but still a worrisome depletion of a once very stout fund.

Today, June 10, the commission will review various county government departmental proposals followed by the constitutional officers' submission on June 11 and the capital improvement blueprint on June 12. A public hearing on the budget will be held from 6-8 p.m. June 12 in commission chambers.

Two more public hearings will be held in September ahead of adoption of the budget so residents have plenty of time to digest the proposals.

In wrapping up his June 3 budget message to commissioners, Hunzeker issued a cautionary note despite this year's good news: "... the prospects for revenue growth for FY16 are not as encouraging due to uncertainty as to whether current growth levels can be sustained."

As this year's budget proposal reflects, austerity remains the order of the day -- as taxpayers demand.

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