While Manatee County commissioners already get a proposed county budget earlier than their counterparts across the state, some commissioners want that process to start even earlier.
In previous years, Manatee County Administrator Ed Hunzeker has presented a recommended budget to the commission at the end of May. But as Hunzeker enters his final budget process before he retires next January, some commissioners say the process should change.
Commissioner Vanessa Baugh said the commission, which ultimately adopts the budget, needs to have more time and needs to know the county departments’ needs.
“I think probably the way it has been done in the past has kind of left us in an awkward position,” she said Tuesday during a work session on the budget process. “This board needs better information sooner so we know what the priorities are for this county. I don’t think we are getting the information as quickly as we need to.”
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But Hunzeker said other Florida counties don’t deliver a budget until mid-July.
“It is the earliest any county commission gets a budget,” he said.
The county departments have just submitted their respective budget proposals, so the county has heard from the departments about their wants and needs, noted Jan Brewer, the county’s financial management department director.
When we deliver that budget at the end of May, we are guessing what the revenue is going to be from property taxes. ...It will be wrong. It may be high. It may be low.
Manatee County Administrator Ed Hunzeker
Those early drafts and information from the department directors now will be sent to commissioners as it becomes available.
“The facts are we can’t keep operating like we are doing,” Commissioner Charles Smith said. “This is a new world now.”
After Hunzeker presents a balanced budget to the commission at the end of May, the commission spends the time until they adopt it in September going through it, “flagging” unfunded items they want to be considered for funding.
“You can buy a higher level of service,” Hunzeker said. “You can buy whatever level of service you want. We make recommendations to you as to what level of service we think is appropriate. There is no right. There is no wrong. It is what we think is necessary in the community.”
Once the budget is delivered to the commissioners, it is their budget, Hunzeker said.
“You can change it and you can change it however you want,” he said. “When we deliver that budget at the end of May, we are guessing what the revenue is going to be from property taxes. ...It will be wrong. It may be high. It may be low.”
Some commissioners raised concerns with the flagging process.
The process we’ve been through in the past has been a little difficult.
Commissioner Vanessa Baugh
“The process we’ve been through in the past has been a little difficult,” Baugh said. “Then we are told we have to find where. I don’t think that’s my job. It’s not up to the board to figure out where we want to cut the budget that you bring forward. It’s up to you to figure out how to get it done.”
But while commissioners have said public safety is the No. 1 priority, they haven’t collectively said what is No. 2 and 3, Hunzeker said.
“That would be helpful,” he said. “I don’t know what’s your lowest priority, so I don’t know what to cut.”
Flagging items is great to identify needs, Commission Chairwoman Betsy Benac said.
“Identifying resources is just as important,” she said. “I want to make sure we don’t have a separation of the two.”
This upcoming budget may be when the county comes “out of the weeds” and current revenue supports current expenses, Hunzeker said.
“We are trying to work our way out of reserves,” he said. “If you want to enhance the service, provide more service, better service, different service, you’ve got to really think about what are the revenues you have available to do those things.”
With the approval of the half-cent infrastructure sales tax, the county has additional revenue.
“There will undoubtedly be a request to bond some of that,” Hunzeker said. “There is not a plan at this point in time. As we go through the Capital Improvement Program, there would probably be an opportunity to look at borrowing to see if it is more prudent.”
The sheriff needs a helicopter, which may be an opportunity to borrow, Hunzeker said.
The commission will have another budget workshop in April.
“We have to have an input,” Smith said. “I look for this budget process to have more input from this board.”