MANATEE -- While responsible for the operation and maintenance of traffic signals on state highways in the county, Manatee County is not fully reimbursed by Florida Department of Transportation for associated costs.
Manatee County government, which is responsible maintaining 100 FDOT-owned traffic signals, is reimbursed for approximately 30 percent of maintenance costs, which $388,737 in unrecovered county costs in fiscal year 2014.
The disparity between the cost to the county and reimbursement from FDOT caused Manatee County commissioners pause Tuesday when asked to execute a new agreement for fiscal year 2015-16. The commission elected to continue the item to the Feb. 9 meeting.
If approved, the terms of the contract would be for 20 years.
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"I think it's crazy for us to approve this obviously to lock ourselves in for 20 years," Commissioner Betsy Benac said. "There are too many questions in mind. I don't feel comfortable at all."
As of Wednesday afternoon, Manatee County is the only county in FDOT's District One that has not signed the agreement, according to FDOT spokesman Robin Stublen. Should the county not approve the new agreement, it would stay with the terms of the current agreement, Stublen said.
Manatee County is reimbursed annually for the traffic signal maintenance.
With increased maintenance requirements in the proposed agreement, compensation is projected at $292,752, which is a 46 percent increase over the previous year. County officials estimate the new reimbursement rate is approximately 53 percent of current annual operations and maintenance costs, which is approximately $548,263, according to county documents.
"We imagine some of these new requirements could cost the county a little bit more," Aaron Burkett, county traffic operations division manager, said Tuesday.
County staff has "made every effort to negotiate with FDOT to provide additional compensation and contract revisions, however, FDOT stated it does not intend to entertain any further negotiations with the agreement," according to agenda materials. FDOT also gave the county the option to keep the existing agreement.
FDOT is expected to increase compensation for next year's agreement to approximately 80 percent of maintenance costs, according to agenda materials.
Starting July 1, the higher compensation will be paid to the county and other entities at $4,500 for each interconnected and monitored traffic signal, Stublen said.
"This amount was arrived at by reviewing cost information provided by 26 agencies throughout the state, the department's maintenance requirements, performance measures requirements and the department's funding availability," Stublen said.
While Manatee County is responsible for the operation and maintenance of the traffic signals on state highways in unincorporated Manatee County, the county does preventative maintenance FDOT doesn't require, Burkett said.
"We have a really, what I would consider, an excellent preventative maintenance program," he said.
New infrastructure inspections, annual inspections and testing and preventive maintenance are among those areas, Burkett said. Staff recommends the level of service not be reduced.
Commissioner John Chappie expressed concern about cutting back some preventative maintenance.
"We have our traffic engineers, we have our experts that are saying, 'These are the inspections. This is the work that needs to be done to have a safe network with these lights throughout our community,' and if something happens and we cut back, there could be liability issues and that concerns me," he said.
County Attorney Mickey Palmer said he would hesitate to recommend the county should compromise its high standards of maintenance.
"Why in the world would this county government compromise its long standing of high standards simply because another government agency is wanting to hold us hostage financially?" he said.
Manatee County is not alone as it is a statewide phenomenon, Palmer said, adding the Florida Association of Counties is mindful of the problem.
"In this instance, the strength of 67 counties begins with one and I would like to see this county government frankly take a bold position with FDOT and say enough is enough," Palmer said.
While the commission held off on directing staff to send a letter to FDOT, County Administrator Ed Hunzeker said in his Feb. 3 meeting with other county administrators he would bring up the topic.
"This is another one of those issues that drains your discretionary funds so that you can't do those things that you want to do because other people are picking your discretionary revenue away from you," Hunzeker said.
Commission Chairwoman Vanessa Baugh said they need to have more discussion before sending a letter.
"We have a good partnership and I don't want to see it hurt because we have an awful lot of work out there on roads that needs to be done," she said.
Claire Aronson, Manatee County reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7024. Follow her on Twitter @Claire_Aronson.