MANATEE -- The county is cutting 54 positions from a dozen departments in an effort to balance its budget without raising taxes.
The hardest hit department in the county’s proposed budget will be parks and recreation services, which will see an 11 percent reduction in its staff, losing 17 of 155 positions. The county’s planning department will lose three of 28 positions, also nearly 11 percent of its staff.
It has been a stressful few weeks for county employees who have been given the option of early retirement or other vacant positions that often pay less. Budget preparations have become an agonizing time for employees since 2007 when the county began cutting services and positions as Florida’s economy went into a nose dive.
“It’s always painful anytime you lose positions,” said Ron Schulhofer, public works director. He worked throughout the year to keep some positions vacant in anticipation of another dismal budget. His department lost a dozen positions. Three people had planned to retire, but Schulhofer did have to layoff some employees.
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“I pray the economy gets better,” he said.
All of the employees who will be affected by the cuts had been told by Tuesday.
About 20 employees opted for early retirement. County Administrator Ed Hunzeker estimated that about two dozen people will retire or be laid off. He will unveil his budget recommendations June 1.
“Every attempt was made to keep employee reductions to a minimum,” Hunzeker said.
Larry Leinhauser, public information officer for the county’s public safety department, said his farewells Tuesday.
“My position has been cut from the county budget and my final day will be 7/1/11,” he wrote in an e-mail. “Having been in Public Safety for the past 28 years in a variety of positions, it will be challenging to step away from it. It gets in the blood. But nonetheless, it’s time to move on.”
Later when asked about the layoffs, Leinhauser said, “While certainly I am not happy, I am very thankful that I served as long as I did and that I served the public.”
Carol Whitmore, commission chairwoman, said it has been a tense few weeks for county employees.
“They were flipping out this week,” she said. “They all knew it was this week. It’s not an easy time. My heart goes out to everyone.”
Hunzeker said tax revenues are down $8 million this year, forcing cuts. He does not expect county commissioners will raise taxes.
“Because we are a service industry, we don’t have inventory, we have people,” Hunzeker said. “There will be a service reduction.”
The cuts come on the heels of four years of cuts to county staff and services. Since 2007, Manatee has cut 237 positions and reduced the budget by nearly $122 million.
Schulhofer said four years of layoffs have him concerned about the level of service his department can offer.
“Like everyone else we’re doing more with less,” Schulofer said. “The cumulative effect is the big one. Over the last three or four years we’ve lost at least 49 positions. We’re not as proactive as we want to be, in many cases we are reactive.”
John Barnott, director of building and development services, said as the county loses positions, it affects the level of customer service.
“These losses you can never recover,” he said. “You can only hope to offset it somehow. We will continue to look at how we do business and see how we can streamline to maintain a good customer service level. We’ve lost talented folks. We can’t make up for that productivity.”
Like Schulhofer, he’s hoping the economy turns around.
“We continue to look at the numbers and see what’s going on,” he said. “It’s up one month and down the next. It’s hard to say what’s in the future right now.”
Hunzeker also offered his draft budgets to the county’s constitutional officers, including the clerk of court’s office and the sheriff’s office. Hunzeker’s budget proposal did not include the 4.4 percent increase Sheriff Brad Steube requested.
“That’s not my plan, that’s his plan,” said Steube, who has included a 3 percent across-the-board pay raise for his employees. “His presentation is Wednesday, mine will be June 14.”