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County to cut budget

MANATEE — Manatee County likely will have to cut its spending for a fourth consecutive year, the county’s top administrator said Monday.

County Administrator Ed Hunzeker said he expects Manatee will have to shave another $15 million to $20 million from its 2010-11 budget, on top of the $98 million in cuts made in previous budgets.

“We’re going to have to continue to downsize,” he said. “It’s going to get more difficult than it already has been.”

As far as where those new cuts will be made, “everything’s on the table for consideration,” Hunzeker said.

His comments came after he, other county officials and county commissioners met in a strategic work session to discuss topics ranging from dredging to the county’s debts. Hunzeker was scheduled to give commissioners a budget update during the meeting, but did not because of time constraints.

A combination of falling property values and state-mandated tax cuts has forced the county to make do with less since the 2007-08 fiscal year.

Most recently, the county eliminated 80 positions, cut library operating hours and tapped reserves to achieve a $510.4 million budget for fiscal 2009-10 — a $34.3 million reduction from the previous year’s budget — without raising taxes.

Without those reserves, the cuts would have been even deeper, Hunzeker said.

“During the run-up in the real-estate market and the run-up in property tax revenue, we didn’t spend it,” he said. “As a result, now we’re in a much-better position to weather the downside.”

But “those reserves won’t last forever,” said Jim Seuffert, the county’s financial management director. He recommended the county create a formal policy of budgeting reserves equal to 20 percent of annual operating expenses for each of the county’s major funds.

Planning for the 2010-11 budget began last week, and county officials plan to present a draft budget to commissioners in May.

Despite the annual budget troubles, the county’s credit is in good shape, a consultant told commissioners during the work session.

“The county, when we review and compare to other counties around the state, is in extremely good financial condition,” said Ed Bulleit of Prager, Sealy & Co. LLC, the county’s financial adviser. “Manatee County has managed debt very well.”

The county’s outstanding debt totaled $324.1 million as of Sept. 30, a decrease of $48.7 million from a year earlier. The county is scheduled to reduce its debt by another $52.5 million this fiscal year. Most of the county’s debt is AA-rated or better, Bulleit said.

Also Monday, county officials updated commissioners on state and federal legislative matters, population projections and two dredging projects.

Duane Marsteller, transportation/growth and development reporter, can be reached at 745-7080, ext. 2630.