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Hunzeker: Cuts to harm Manatee’s future

BRADENTON -- County officials are gazing 25 years into the future, and they’re seeing a place with fewer amenities than Manatee residents enjoy now.

That’s the picture County Administrator Ed Hunzeker painted for the Manatee Tiger Bay Club Thursday in a discussion about growth and budget cuts.

Hunzeker and his newly-hired organizational development manager, David Klement, will be recommending which of 60 county programs should be cut in order to continue reducing the current $484,244,805 budget, Hunzeker said.

In the past four years, county commissioners have cut the budget by 20 percent, or $122 million; and staffing has been cut by 10 percent, or 183 positions. At least $10 million more in reductions might still occur, Hunzeker said.

“What we did for the most part is, we reduced the future,” Hunzeker said.

“We have a capital improvement program, and we were going to build libraries, we were going to build parks, we had a pool planned for Palmetto; we had a number of projects for the future for the children of people in this room -- and their childrens’ children -- that just won’t happen.”

“So you don’t feel the pain today,” he said, but those who live here in the future will enjoy fewer of the community assets that contribute to a high quality of life.

“We know how to cut the budget,” Hunzeker said. “The question is, can the community live with the programs that go away?”

In danger of elimination are discretionary programs like lifeguards at the beach, libraries, transit system and park maintenance, Hunzeker said.

“The entire library system is $5.3 million; there is no law that says we have to have libraries,” he told the group.

Hunzeker and Klement discussed how Manatee County might grow over the next 25 years. Although very little growth has occurred over the past two years, “Rest assured growth is going to come back,” Klement said.

About 79 million baby boomers will start to turn 65 next month, and many of them will want to come here, “but no, not at the pace we’ve been used to for many years,” Klement said.

Manatee County could attract between 140,000 and 180,000 additional people by 2035, increasing the population by one-third, he said.

Officials are considering three options for handling growth:

n Continue the way we grow now.

n Try “smart growth,” -- urban redevelopment of existing properties with improved transit and protection of green space.

n Concentrate growth in “activity centers” at urban cores, such as downtown Bradenton or Lakewood Ranch, where residents could live, work and play, Hunzeker said.

Officials are trying to crunch numbers about what Manatee will be like in the future in order to formulate a vision on how growth should take place, along with an implementing action plan, Hunzeker said.

The county hired Klement, a former Bradenton Herald editorial page editor, without advertising or interviewing anyone else because he is a leader that could help make difficult decisions, Hunzeker said. Klement was hired in September at an annual salary of $80,017.

His skill in whittling down a massive amount of data and transmitting it simply to the public can help the citizenry to make difficult decisions that will have lasting effects, Hunzeker told the crowd gathered at Mattison’s Riverside.

“Not many of us have that skill,” Hunzeker said.

In answer to a question from county Commissioner Carol Whitmore, Hunzeker defended Klement’s salary, arguing that it’s “miniscule” in comparison with the millions of dollars worth of problems he would help to solve.

In answer to a question about why recruitment was not done openly and advertised, Hunzeker said he could have spent time and taxpayer money on a public search, but he still would have chosen Klement.

Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at (941) 745-7031.