In a politically expedient move, Manatee County Administrator Ed Hunzeker proposed the formation of a Citizens Financial Structure Advisory Board, and county commissioners recently approved the idea. His goal is to diversify how government pays for services, programs and capital projects instead of the current heavy reliance on property taxes.
Once established, the new board will be tasked with writing recommendations for new revenue streams -- should that indeed be the outcome. Instead of a top-down list coming from government, the board will be a community-driven, bottom-up effort that seeks citizen buy-in. That goal won't be easy.
But that's the hard lesson from the failed June 2013 referendum on a half-cent sales-tax increase that also promised a property tax reduction. County commissioners and administrators rushed the initiative onto the ballot and then did little to properly explain the measure and win voters over. A political organization waged a fierce campaign to destroy public confidence in the plan.
This new citizens board will have distinct advantages over that poor effort. All meetings will be held in the sunshine, open to public scrutiny.
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Six board members will come from various chambers of commerce and business organizations, including the Greater Bradenton Area Economic Development Agency. Plus, each commissioner will appoint one individual who resides in their district. The advisory board will only exist for five months under Hunzeker's plan.
To get things rolling, the board will hear from various county administrators who will explain how their departments pay for services and programs.
Infrastructure upkeep, health care, parks, libraries and other programs don't come cheap but need to be sustained -- else Manatee's quality of life suffers. Current revenue holds little money for repairs or replacements of assets.
Hunzeker also intends to invite nearby county administrators to a board meeting to discuss their various revenue streams -- including franchise fees, stormwater fees, sales taxes and business taxes -- that complement property taxes.
Those nearby counties enjoy nice trail systems and more libraries as well as revenue for indigent health care and other public programs.
Of 27 municipal and county governments stretching from Naples and Lee County to Clearwater and Pasco County, Manatee County collects the lowest amount of revenue in the unincorporated portion and lacks both an electric franchise fee and stormwater fee.
"I want to convince the community," Hunzeker told the Herald Editorial Board in August. "The community has to understand and then talk to commissioners."
There is some urgency to this proceeding since the county could be staring down a deficit in 2018 when the budget stabilization reserve fund is expected to dry up. Commissioners have been dipping into the fund to keep the millage rate flat, this year's budget being the eighth consecutive year.
A top-down campaign to adopt long-term solutions most likely would have faced a steep uphill climb to gain commission support, especially among those who espouse "we must live within our means" political argument. Those means will soon fail to support current public services and programs as growth and public demands increase.
So now we have a citizens advisory board to, ostensibly, do the heavy lifting. With an election coming up in November 2016, candidates will be loathe to support anything but the status quo.
Public safety and law enforcement both need new investments in equipment and personnel. Nobody's talking about extravagances, only programs that serve the wellbeing of the community.
This citizens advisory board is a step in the right direction. We hope voters keep an open mind on the proceedings.