Manatee County commissioners and administrators have placed a premium on passage of a referendum seeking a 15-year half-cent sales tax increase on the November ballot. The painstaking and deliberate approach to solving a looming budget deficit first engaged the community in seeking solutions, one of several smart moves to gain public trust and support for the surtax.
The Citizens Financial Structure Advisory Board performed a valuable service in scrutinizing all the options for creating a sustainable county budget for years to come and then recommending the surtax as the best. Today’s county budget is overly dependent on property taxes, and commissioners are loathe to increase the millage, which has remained the same for the past decade. The appeal of a sales surtax can be found in the fact that visitors would contribute almost a third of that revenue.
Public accountability and transparency are a vital part of this effort.
Having learned the hard lesson from the failed 2013 vote on a sales surtax for health care, this time the county is clearly avoiding those past pitfalls. Voters now have in hand a detailed list of priority infrastructure projects that the $345 million in revenue over 15 years would fund. The lack of a specific list on the health care vote doomed the measure as did the lack of a public campaign by the county in support of the referendum. That latter lapse will not be repeated either. Public accountability and transparency are a vital part of this effort, too.
This week, commissioners got a good look at the detailed project list. The public’s outcry over road and traffic conditions will be addressed with almost $13 million spent annually on major road improvements, including standard travel lanes, sidewalks, bike lanes and lighting — all to improve safety for motorists, bicyclists and pedestrians. Another $2.3 million each year will fund intersection upgrades with enhanced traffic signals and additional turn lanes — designed to reduce congestion and boost safety. The third component in the transportation project list is neighborhood sidewalks and sidewalks to schools, at $1.2 million annually.
Transportation infrastructure improvements consume the lion’s share of the projected sales tax revenue, at 70.70 percent, or $16 million a year. The public safety and law enforcement project list focuses on the replacement and expansion of aging facilities and equipment, be that law enforcement, criminal justice, 911 and public safety, at almost $3.5 million annually.
The parks and community amenities agenda also focuses on replacing and upgrading aging facilities, including parks and aquatic assets, athletic fields, playgrounds, boat ramps, nature preserves and libraries. The budget only calls for $3.2 million a year.
I want to make sure what we commit to building, we actually build.
Manatee County Administrator Ed Hunzeker
The 15-page project lists dozens and dozens of streets earmarked for sidewalks and road drainage and very specific street, traffic, parks and athletic field upgrades. A county map pinpoints the locations of recommended projects with dots. Voters will have access to all the information on this referendum — transparency surely designed to allay questions and concerns.
One essential element that will appear in the county ordinance — which also contains the ballot language — entails accountability. A citizens oversight committee will be created as an advisory and reporting body to the county and issue an annual report on the surtax expenditures.
“I want to make sure what we commit to building, we actually build,” County Administrator Ed Hunzeker assured the public upon the release of the project list last week.
This is a thorough and thoughtful effort worthy of public approval. These projects are all quality of life improvements for residents and visitors. One side effect is economic development as Manatee County becomes a more livable and attractive place.
We encourage voters to become fully educated on this important referendum. And consider this question: What kind of future do you want for this community?