MANATEE -- With a potential deficit looming in 2018, a recently formed Citizens Financial Structure Advisory Board will get to work this week, looking at ways to help address Manatee County government's funding issues.
County Administrator Ed Hunzeker's brainchild, the committee will study how Manatee County government pays for itself and make recommendations of potential new funding sources to the county commission. It meets for the first time Thursday evening,
"We have for the most part relied on property taxes and in the years gone by, property taxes grew at a pace that afforded us the opportunity to fund the day-to-day services of the government and even have some money to fund capital projects and put some money away for a rainy day, and that has changed," Hunzeker said.
The county faces a potential deficit in 2018, when it is expected to exhaust the general portion of the budget stabilization reserve fund.
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A combination of factors, including the increase in homestead exemption to $50,000 and the Save Our Homes constitutional amendment that limits increases in the assessed value of property, have contributed to a reduction in the growth of property tax revenue, the county's major funding source, Hunzeker said.
"We can't do what we used to do," he said. "We are having a hard time funding the operating budget. We put no money in the capital and we are not putting away money for a rainy day. We are actually reducing the funds. Everything we do here is looking out 20 years, 30 years. It's not sustainable to continue to do what we've always done. We have to figure it out. ... If we can't rely on property taxes to sustain the quality of life issues in the county, what are we going to do?"
Comprised of 13 members, the Citizens Financial Structure Advisory Committee is the first of its kind for a county government in the state, Hunzeker said, adding that he's done citizen surveys and focus groups in the past.
Each commissioner appointed one board member who resides in his or her respective district. The other six members come from organizations, including the Manatee Chamber of Commerce, Lakewood Ranch Business Alliance, Black Chamber of Commerce, Anna Maria Island Chamber of Commerce, Gulf Coast Latin Chamber of Commerce and the Greater Bradenton Area Economic Development Corp.
"It would be a really good thing to have many eyes looking at our budget process," said Commissioner Vanessa Baugh, who will be the commission chairwoman in 2016 when the committee makes its recommendation to the commission. "The advisory board has some very, very qualified people on it."
With property taxes as the county's major source of revenue, there are many people in Manatee County, including tourists, snowbirds and renters who are paying no taxes at all, Baugh said.
"There are so many people that use the county things that we have available, and they are not paying any money to fund these things that need to be done," she said. "In my opinion, I would love to see the millage rate be able to be reduced, because we have other funding sources available that are more equitable for everyone. Everyone uses our libraries. Everyone uses our parks. Everyone use our roads. All the factors that make Manatee County a wonderful place to live, everyone uses them. I think it's good that we are looking at what we can change, what we can do to make it better and more equitable to everyone here."
According to the resolution establishing the committee, the board will exist for five months, expiring May 1. Whether the recommendations will be put in place in the next year is yet to be determined as some of the potential new funding sources require voter approval, Hunzeker said.
"By having it end by May 1, there could be implications to the next two-year budget," he said.
Goals of the committee
During the first meetings of the committee, county staff will explain the county's budget process, Hunzeker said.
"We are going to make sure we take the time and take them through it," he said. "We want to engage them in a conversation so they completely understand it and are comfortable in it."
Then, the county administrators from Leon, Charlotte and Escambia counties will come to Manatee County to speak to the committee in a panel discussion about how they fund their respective governments.
"They don't all do it the same way, but they all do it different than us," Hunzeker said, which is why he invited those administrators.
After hearing from the other counties, Hunzeker said they will then "sit with this committee and say you've heard what they've done and this is what this means."
Possible funding sources include impact fees, franchise fees, stormwater fees, Municipal Service Benefit Unit taxes and Municipal Services Taxing Unit taxes. Hunzeker said.
"It's not a problem of revenues," Hunzeker said. "It's a problem of what services we can't afford. Everybody thinks that it is health care that is the elephant. The elephant in the room is those assets that we already own and we don't have a funding source to maintain them. Let's see what the problem is in maintaining the service level."
After the committee does their research, they will have a community discussion based on their recommendations to find out what the community wants, Hunzeker said.
"To ask the people paying the bill what they want is never wrong," he said. "Telling somebody what they need is always wrong. ... We are not into dictating. We are into asking."
Baugh echoed the sentiment about getting public input.
"We need, in my opinion, to have some public meetings," she said. "What are your thoughts? It needs to be a decision not only done by county commission but by the residents of Manatee County because it concerns all of us. We need to make sure we have good public input."
Claire Aronson, Manatee County reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7024. Follow her on Twitter@Claire_Aronson.