MANATEE — Taxpayers opposed it, but it was a commissioner’s absence that likely sounded the death knell for the Manatee County sheriff’s surtax.
County commissioners tentatively rejected the proposed surtax, which would have raised the tax rate by 10 cents for every $1,000 of assessed property value, during a public hearing on the budget Thursday.
The vote for the surtax was 3-3 — a majority is required for passage — and almost mirrored a July 29 vote that approved putting the increase on the county’s Truth in Millage (TRIM) notices, the first step in getting the tax increase approved.
Commission Chairman Donna Hayes and commissioners Carol Whitmore and John Chappie opposed the tax hike both times.
The difference this time? Commissioner Gwen Brown, who previously supported the surtax in a 4-3 vote, was absent from Thursday’s public hearing.
So commissioners changed course, tentatively approving a property tax millage rate of $6.2993, the same as last year, and a $483 million budget, down about $24 million from last year.
But that doesn’t mean Sheriff Brad Steube will go begging. Commissioners agreed to increase his budget by $1 million, funding the hike through county reserve funds.
The surtax would have raised $2.3 million to allow the sheriff’s office to cover a Florida Legislature mandate for an increase in the state pension fund and other expected budget shortfalls.
“It’s a half a loaf,” Commissioner Larry Bustle said.
Of the 12 residents who spoke at Thursday’s public hearing, three opposed the sheriff’s surtax. None supported it.
“I stand before you to object to the budget increase,” said Steve Albritton, a lifelong Manatee County resident. “The only thing that hasn’t been going up ... is the value of my home.”
Said Gary Geren, “I can’t believe that you would have the nerve to come with an increase in taxes. ... Every budget can be cut. I’ve never met a budget that couldn’t be cut.”
Steube said the new plan won’t result in a reduction of services because his department has sought savings in this year’s budget to carry over to next year.
“This was my original presentation,” Steube said. “Only when I was told the retirement contribution was going up by a million, that’s when I came back and said, ‘I can’t do it now.’ ”
County Administrator Ed Hunzeker said removing the $1 million from the budget stabilization fund is unlikely to hurt the county’s excellent bond rating. But it could give departments less cushion when preparing the next budget.
Adell Erozer, the executive director of the Community Coalition on Homelessness, asked the commission to reconsider a 5 percent budget cut levied on her group. She said the coalition has provided services for 4,000 people who are homeless or about to be homeless at the Bill Galvano One Stop Center this year, and the numbers are increasing annually.
The final public hearing on the budget will be at 6 p.m. Sept. 28 in commission chambers. The final approval of the tax millage rate and budget will follow.
Also Thursday, commissioners:
n Heard from Hunzeker about a plan to save the Longboat Key Trolley. Hunzeker recommended the commission continue funding the transit service, which runs from Coquina Beach to downtown Sarasota, through Dec. 31 at a cost of $70,000, to be paid out of reserves. Government officials from the town of Longboat Key, Manatee County and Sarasota County will meet later this fall to come up with an “alternate delivery system” plan for 2011, he said.
n Rejected an amendment from Commissioner Joe McClash that would have eliminated the organizational development manager position created last month by Hunzeker. McClash proposed the amendment to the overall budget resolution, but no commissioner seconded his motion.