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Manatee to be hit with more budget cuts

BRADENTON — The Manatee County Commission got its first in-depth look Thursday at a proposed $469 million budget for 2010-11 that in order to be balanced will require a series of proposed spending cuts, employee cutbacks, service reductions and elimination of programs.

The continuing trend of reduced revenues will force commissioners to make some tough choices.

In proposing a $469 million — which would be $27.8 million less than the current budget — County Administrator Ed Hunzeker also suggested taking about $14 million from the Budget Stabilization Reserve, which was established when tax revenues were higher, to balance the new budget.

“These reserve funds will play a major role in mitigating budget and service reductions,” said Hunzeker, whose plan does not include a property tax increase.

Expected revenues for the county’s new budget year, which runs from Oct. 1-Sept. 30, 2011, are about $455 million.

This includes an estimated amount of about $136.3 million in property taxes, which is about $24 million less than last year.

The slumping real estate market and lower property values have led to the drop in one of the larger sources of revenue, about 35 percent of the taxes, fees and transfers the county counts on to operate.

This downward trend in revenues has already brought about budget cuts of $121 million over the past four years, or about 21 percent.

“People haven’t felt the pain of the $121 million in reductions because the pain has been shifted to future generations,” Hunzeker said, “in terms of less parks, libraries and environmental lands.”

Just as in past years, Hunzeker proposed to balance the budget with a mixture of reserve funds and spending cuts.

Although not reflected in the expenditures column, the county administrator proposed some cost savings by freezing employee wage increases for the third year in the row.

Also, he suggested having employees contribute an additional $20 to the $50 a month they now pay in health insurance premiums.

The elimination of funding for 53 job positions will reduce expenditures by about $2 million.

The positions were spread over several county departments, so as not to cripple one more than others.

Also, reductions in services and programs were recommended to achieve a balanced budget.

For example, the Parks and Recreation Department will lose five positions, and trim its spending by $805,000.

Some of the savings will be achieved with higher user fees, such as charging sports leagues for the use of field lighting.

The Public Works Department will lose 19 positions and cut expenditures about $1.5 million.

“Some of these (cuts) reflect a decrease in workload and some reflect greater operating efficiencies,” Hunzeker wrote in his budget message. “Services to the public for routine operations should be minimally affected.”

The Children’s Services Tax Fund will see a decrease of about $1.2 million.

The citizen’s advisory board has requested the commission make up the difference using reserves, as it has in the past, to maintain programs. But Hunzeker said because revenues are not expected to increase in the near future, that would not be a sustainable action.

Other proposed reductions call for eliminating the library Bookmobile service, discontinuing the Longboat Key trolley and the State Housing Initiative Program when state funding runs out, and not funding casual paratransit services.

Hunzeker also proposes shifting the cost of expected increases in the state pension contributions from the county’s budget to the individual constitutional officers’ budgets, such as the clerk of the court, the property appraiser, and the sheriff.

The proposed budget for the sheriff’s office is about the same as last year — $92 million — but Sheriff Brad Steube will have to find an additional 2 percent in cuts to pay for pension contribution increases.

The county commission sets the budget figure for the constitutional officers, but each one decides how to allocate the funds.

All of the proposed cuts and reserve fund shifts are necessary to maintain the same property tax rate as the past three budget years.

Under Hunzeker’s proposal, the base property tax will be the same as the past two years, about $6.30 for every $1,000 in taxable property value.

The county’s portion of a property owner’s tax bill is about 44 percent of the total countywide taxes paid, which include the Manatee County School District and other taxing authorities.

Commissioner Chairwoman Donna Hayes said cuts in expenditures were preferred to raising taxes

“The county is having issues,” Hayes said, “but so are our constituents.

“They have mortgages, car payments and children to feed,” she said. “They’re suffering.”