BRADENTON — Manatee County Sheriff Brad Steube warned Tuesday of the dire situation the sheriff’s office and ultimately the community faces without an increase in the proposed budget.
Addressing the county commission earlier in the day, and again at a public hearing later Tuesday evening, Steube asked the board to consider raising the property tax rate to maintain public safety.
“I’ve heard you can’t (raise taxes) because it’s an election year,” Steube said. “But when people ask me what they can do to prevent cuts in the sheriff’s office, I tell them to lobby the county commission.”
Steube said he has pared the budget to the bone and it has affected his office’s efficiency.
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There has been a 4 percent increase in the crime rate since Jan. 1, mostly due to vehicle and home burglaries.
“You talk about bringing businesses to the county,” the sheriff told commissioners, “but they will look long and hard if our crime rate doesn’t improve.”
Commissioner Joe McClash suggested at a morning workshop the commission consider raising the property tax rate by 10 cents for every $1,000 in assessed property value and dedicate the estimated $2 million it would raise for the sheriff’s office.
If the commission adopts the same tax rate as this year, $6.2993 for every $1,000 in taxable value of property, a home with an assessed value of $275,000, with a homestead deduction of $25,000, the county portion of the tax bill would be $1,574.83.
McClash’s proposal would increase that tax bill by $25.
He said the county portion of the property tax bill would still be less than last year’s for most property owners because of declining property values.
At the workshop and the public hearing later Tuesday, Commissioner Ron Getman emphasized the commission has cut taxes $121 million over the last four years.
“This board only controls 41 percent of the property tax bill,” Getman said. “If people saw a tax increase, it was from other government entities.”
McClash sought a consensus from the other commissioners on the proposal to increase the tax rate so the county staff can make adjustments to the proposed $469.1 million budget.
But Commission Chairwoman Donna Hayes said it was too soon for board members to make such a commitment.
“I want to hear from my constituents before I make a decision on something like that,” Hayes said.
Commissioner Larry Bustle said considering the importance of public safety, he was ready to commit to a tax rate increase.
“I don’t have any qualms saying I’m in favor of exploring the best way to fund the sheriff’s office needs,” Bustle said.
He also reiterated that most people’s taxes will not increase because property values have declined so much.
Commissioners Carol Whitmore and John Chappie both were not ready to say they would support an increase in the property tax rate.
Not coming right out and supporting the proposal, Commissioner Gwen Brown said the board needs to find ways to fund public safety.
“People say I don’t have that problem, so why should I pay?” Brown said. “But it’s because you pay that you don’t have that problem.”
Of the 20 or so people who attended the public hearing, only seven addressed the commissioners to give their input on the proposed budget.
A couple speakers asked the board to reconsider the cuts in the budget for library services, such as elimination of the Bookmobile.
Don Forrester asked how the commission could budget $35 million to build the Fort Hamer Bridge while trimming county services.
County Administrator Ed Hunzeker explained that the fund for the bridge come from transportation impact fees developers pay and that money can only be used for new road projects.
Arlene Flisik wondered why the Children’s Services Advisory Board’s suggested spending plan was not accepted.
Hunzeker said the advisory board’s proposal included using all of the reserves in the Children’s Service’s Tax Fund and his staff did not think that would be prudent.
He suggested the board prioritize their programs or trim across the board, and at the same time retain some of the reserve funds.
Flisik also asked if the county had money put aside if the Deep Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico hits the county’s beaches.
The county administrator said there are reserve funds available.
Both Kevin Lausman and Tim Norwood, who is a candidate for the District 4 county commission seat, said there are more areas in the budget to trim to cover any shortfall in the sheriff’s budget.
The sheriff proposed a $92.2 million budget for the next fiscal year, which runs from Oct. 1 to Sept. 30, 2011.
This is about $263,000 more than last year, and most of the increase will pay for three additional court bailiff positions.
The sheriff’s budget includes cost increases of about $1.4 million that had to be made up with cuts from other areas.
About $1 million of the new revenue from higher taxes would pay for an increase in what the sheriff’s office has to contribute to a state pension fund under changes adopted by the Florida Legislature last year.
The rest would go toward operational expenditures the sheriff has been delaying for the past several years because of reduced revenues. Those needs include squad car computer replacements, new radios, new vehicles, and computer software.
Without the additional revenue, the sheriff said he will have to cut back on training and equipment for deputies, jail food and equipment, maintenance and other items.
The commissioners also heard from the other constitutional officers and their spending plans.
Property Appraiser Charlie Hackney said he had to increase his budget for next year by about $158,000 to about $3.8 million and hire two people because of changes in Florida law that created more work for his office.
Supervisor of Elections Bob Sweat will reduce his budget by $20,893 to about $2.07 million, and Clerk of the Circuit Court R.B. Chips Shore cut his budget by $13,883 to about $6.3 million.