While Manatee County’s half-cent infrastructure sales tax will not go into effect until January, county officials are already looking through the list of projects that will be funded with the new revenue to see which can be started first.
“We would like to, as we identify those projects, come back to the board and perhaps amend the budget before the end of the fiscal year so we can get started on those projects,” County Administrator Ed Hunzeker said Wednesday.
The county’s half-cent sales tax was approved Tuesday by 57 percent — or 98,508 — of the votes, with 43 percent, or 74,854, voting to reject the tax. Along with the approved continuation of the half-cent school sales tax, the rate will become 7 percent on Jan. 1 in Manatee.
While impact fees cannot be used to repair existing assests, sales tax revenues can be used to leverage the issuance of debt to finance improvements. The increase will generate enough to address transportation, public safety and parks/community amentity needs as the county faces a deficit come 2018.
The sales tax now makes the county’s budget sustainable, Hunzeker said.
“It’s going to reduce the reliance on reserves,” he said. “It may not eliminate that in ’18, but should be eliminated by ’19.”
Approximately 71 percent of the revenue will go toward transportation projects, 15 percent for public safety and law enforcement, and 14 percent will go toward parks/community amenities. The allocations were determined last spring by a citizens advisory board tasked with addressing the county’s financial challenges.
“I have asked staff to look at that project list and dissect it by identifying those projects that require acquisition of real estate or permitting,” Hunzeker said. “We have not spent any taxpayers’ money to do any preliminary design or engineering.”
2017 projects possible
On Wednesday, department directors welcomed the sales tax approval.
“They are extremely happy about the results of the sales tax,” he said. “They are also relieved that they can do what they need to do to maintain those assets that they are responsible for. They are happy and thankful and relieved at the same time.”
The projects that do not require right-of-way acquisition or permits will probably be accomplished sooner, Hunzeker said, adding that they will most likely be the parks projects.
“Those will be sooner,” he said. “It’s those that can get done sooner will get done sooner.”
Projects could be started as soon as 2017.
“We get no reward for having money in the bank,” he said. “All the projects that are on the list are priced at today’s dollars. The more we delay, the more expensive the project will get. If we can do it, do it.”
The county will be eligible to borrow money beginning in January to accelerate some of the improvements, Hunzeker said.
“We are not going to race into any financing just because interest rates are low,” he said. “If we are going to borrow money, it’s because we need to spend the money. We have the authority to borrow. We don’t have the plan to borrow.”
Sheriff ‘very grateful’
The half-cent sales tax will “fund some things in the future that we need to have done,” Manatee Sheriff Brad Steube said Wednesday.
“I’m just very grateful that our citizens saw this as a need and are taking public safety seriously just like we do,” Steube said.
For the past few years, Steube has been asking for more deputies on the road. The revenue from the sales tax could be used for capital items, freeing up money in the budget for additional deputies, he said.
“The bottom line is, we need more people and we are down based on how many deputies per 100,000,” he said.
In addition to capital improvements such as a new helicopter, the sales tax will allow the sheriff’s office to consider creating a fourth patrol district. One patrol district currently covers everything east of Interstate 75 and north of the Manatee River.
“We would even be able to do better with crime,” Steube said. “We should have another patrol district.”
A citizens oversight committee will be established to make sure funds are spent in the project categories stated in the ballot language.
Since the public overwhelmingly supported the referendum, Commission Chairwoman Vanessa Baugh said it is important to get the committee together soon.
“I think the commission needs to have a discussion, probably very quickly, of putting the committee together,” she said. “That was a promise that was made to be transparent. The citizens overwhelmingly supported the tax referendum. We owe them that to do that immediately.”
Baugh said she is overwhelmed by the community’s support of the sales tax.
“It was an amazing win of confidence that the citizens of Manatee County had for the BOCC,” she said. “I am touched. It is such a small, small price to pay for some of these things.”