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County tries to soften revenue shortfall

MANATEE — Facing estimates of $16 million or more in revenue shortfalls, the Manatee County Commission on Tuesday heard options available to reduce the effects on next year’s budget.

Also at the work session meeting, Sheriff Brad Steube presented a strategic plan for his department, highlighting the tight budget he has had to work with over the years to maintain public safety in the county.

Looking at economic trend indicators, tax revenues are expected to continue to decline over the next several years, according to County Administrator Ed Hunzeker.

“I don’t believe this will be the last year of budget reductions,” Hunzeker said, after referring to about $34 million in spending cuts over the past two years.

Hunzeker said commissioners would have to decide on the size of spending cuts and the amount to draw from a $30 million budget stabilization reserve fund they established last year.

“You could use all of the reserves now and not have any reduction in the size of government,” Hunzeker said, “but next year you will have a radical reduction of government spending.”

Tax revenue for the 2010-11 fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1, is expected to be $170 million, or $16 million less than for the current budget.

Jim Seuffert, director of the county financial management department, outlined a scenario of using the budget stabilization reserve over the next four years that commissioners could consider.

Seuffert painted a picture of continued decreases in property tax revenues, and provided a hypothetical example of how commissioners could address the shortfalls with spending cuts and infusions of reserve funds.

Hunzeker said the tax revenue figures are all estimates until the property appraiser provides the actual numbers in July.

“We’re doing a lot of assuming in these scenarios,” he said.

“It could be more or it could be less.”

Commissioners asked several technical questions without providing any indications of how they plan to deal with the expected revenue shortfall.

Commissioner Joe McClash was the only commissioner to bring up property tax rates, asking Seuffert to provide to the commission the millage rate increase needed for every $1 million spent from the stabilization reserve fund.

Hunzeker did say he did a budget cutting exercise that resulted in saving about $6 million by cutting 60 positions from the county payroll.

Commission Chairwoman Donna Hayes said she would hate to see employees have to take pay cuts, but she said she has heard they were willing to accept them if it meant other employees are not laid off.

As an example of how the county is dealing with staff shortages, two members of Sheriff Stuebe’s administrative team, Brian Schnering, human resources director, and Thomas Salisbury, comptroller, provided commissioners with several charts and graphs that compared the sheriff’s office with adjacent law enforcement departments.

Schnering said to be on par with the other agencies, the sheriff’s office would need to hire 167 more people, including 52 more deputies, 106 correctional officers and 10 support staff.

Salisbury said to implement the strategic plan would require a $3.7 million budget increase. Currently, the sheriff’s annual budget is $92 million.

At the end of the presentation, Steube asked commissioners to consider two things: to allow him to roll over any money saved from this year’s budget into next year’s; and to look at establishing a permanent funding source for the sheriff’s office, such as a dedicated property tax.

Carl Mario Nudi, Herald staff writer, can be reached at 745-7027.