This year, Manatee County witnessed a host of developments that generated intense interest. By far and away, the Manatee County School District elicited the most Herald editorials -- some positive, some negative. Both the state and county positions on health care for the working poor and indigent deserved scrutiny, too. Medical marijuana surged into the public's consciousness thanks to a constitutional amendment on the ballot.
Manatee County's Animal Services division remained in the spotlight over a 2013 abuse scandal but is rebounding. The Bradenton Housing Authority's year mirrored that storyline somewhat while working to recover from a financial mess.
But there were plenty of bright spots, too, most prominently displayed with the October opening of The Mall at University Town Center.
Schools and education
The month of March began on a sour note as some school board members exhibited boorish behavior -- speaking above one another, sometimes in raised voices -- during a training session over drafting a new operations manual. That earned the board an appeal for robust, civil debate.
As the district continued to emerge from rampant overspending and financial mismanagement under the previous administration, the board wisely requested a state investigation. We urged Florida officials not to punish the district with steep fines and that did not occur.
But the district was justifiably compelled to reimburse the state $5.9 million in misspent funding. Surprisingly, the district ended the year strong financially, with a $14 million surplus -- completely recovering from an $8.9 million deficit. And the 2014-2015 budget looks even better.
The board foolishly rushed the administration into hiring private security guards to patrol elementary schools, which lost school resource officers during budget cuts.
That hasty action proved costly as the district violated Sunshine laws on open meetings and had to cancel the contract one month into the contract. Now the district is heading in the right direction, negotiating with law enforcement agencies to restore school resource officers.
Students, parents and educators basked in the limelight over the significant improvement in academic achievement. Overall, the 2013-2014 standardized test scores pushed the district from 47th in the state to 37th. Two dozen schools earned higher grades
Indigent health care
While Florida's House rightfully came under heavy criticism here for rejecting the federal offer to pay for an expansion of Medicaid, Manatee County continued to struggle in finding a long-term solution to the costs of health care for the poor and uninsured. The trust fund established decades ago will be depleted after the current budget year, and county commissioners must look elsewhere for money to partially reimburse physicians and hospitals for uncompensated medical treatments.
Should Manatee fail to devise a new funding strategy, the county would earn the ignominious distinction of being the only county in Florida that doesn't contribute to health care for the poor.
February began with a raid on an East Manatee animal shelter that shocked the public with the wretched conditions there. Immediately, Animal Services came under fire for failing to properly monitor the operation, and an internal investigation was launched.
The review sparked more withering criticism and demands for change. The chief was replaced with an interim director. Then this month an external audit recommended a number of policy shifts, including greater transparency on No Kill reports -- a high priority in the animal rescue community. Now the ball's in the county commissioner's court.
The proposed constitutional amendment legalizing medical marijuana for debilitating conditions upon a physician's recommendation failed at November's ballot box. Ahead of the vote, representatives on both sides of the issue staged numerous public appearances to speak out. The Herald-State College of Florida Community Conversation drew a standing-room-only crowd of interested parties on SCF's campus.
Vague amendment language doomed the proposal, but the idea endures. Medical cannabis supporters are engaged on a new citizen initiative to place a better written proposal on the ballot, and next year legislators will once again find lobbyists knocking on their doors.
January came with the Bradenton Housing Authority board promising transparency and accountability in the wake of a financial scandal and ouster of the agency's director. While a federal investigation continues to plod along, the BHA is moving forward with solid policy reforms.
The hiring of a new executive director, Ellis Mitchell, is bearing fruit with board-approved proposal to trim the bloated staff salaries.
Mall at UTC
Interest in The Mall at University Town Center grew and grew ahead of the grand opening and its great timing ahead of the holiday shopping season. An instant success, the upscale mall gives the region something sadly lacking beforehand -- a giant retail people magnet.
UTC and the surrounding commercial district should be the envy of many Florida communities with its considerable economic power. And Benderson Development Company is surging ahead with expansion plans on nearby parcels.
Call it Manatee Technical Institute no more. The workforce and career training school is now Manatee Technical College. That one-word change creates a stronger image among both students and employers. Bravo!
The $12 million Patriot Plaza at the Sarasota National Cemetery debuted to wondrous applause. The 2,800-seat pavilion is unique among the country's 131 national cemeteries. Kudos to the Patterson Foundation for this generous gift.