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Manatee jail needs repair, but where will funds come from?

MANATEE -- There’s moisture seeping into the 16-year-old Manatee County Central Jail building near Port Manatee due to failing stucco and the need for a total repaint.

Cost to fix: $165,000.

The meat packing plant, which feeds the inmates, does not have a back-up generator to protect the just butchered meat if the electricity fails.

Cost to fix: $150,000

Although the jail’s kitchen is being remodeled, the old appliances are slated to be re-installed.

Cost for new ones: $150,000

These three items, which total $465,000, top a priority list of more than $1 million in immediate needs that Sheriff Brad Steube presented to county commissioners today during a board work session on jail issues.

The 11 a.m. session at the county administration building will be followed up with a tour of the jail at 2 p.m. today so commissioners can get a first hand look at what Steube is talking about.

Commissioners Donna Hayes, John Chappie, Carol Whitmore, Mike Gallen and Robin DiSabatino seemed to support taking care of the stucco, appliances and generator, but commissioner Joe McClash, while supporting the first two, indicated he still needs to be sold on the back-up generator.

Commissioner Larry Bustle was not in attendance at the work session.

Perhaps more revealing than the jail’s need for repairs was the discussion that followed of how the upgrades could be financed.

Although the sheriff operates the jail, the county, hence the taxpayers, own the jail.

Steube likened it to a family owning a house only, in this case, the family is every Manatee citizen.

“You don’t expect to live in it for 16 years and not have upkeep,” Steube told commissioners. “If you don’t do these things now, we will have to pay more later.”

Commissioners agreed, but found out there is no money earmarked for such repairs, said county administrator Ed Hunzeker.

The county has several savings accounts where the money could be pulled from, Hunzeker said.

They include a budget stabilization fund, set up with $50 million two years ago, that now has “$20 million to $30 million,” Hunzeker said.

This fund is essentially the county’s saving account, Hunzeker confided.

There is also a commission reserve fund, which has roughly $1 million per year, from which the commissioners can chose to do emergency expenditures.

Finally, there is an almost untouchable “cash reserve” that is just enough to operate the county for 90 days.

“That is the money that is absolutely the last that would be touched because it would keep the government working in an emergency,” Hunzeker said.

Any other money would mean cutting jobs, Hunzeker added.

Commissioners tossed around the idea of taking half the money from their reserve and half from the stabilization fund, but Whitmore did not want the big saving account tapped into.

“I do not want to touch the stabilization fund,” she said. “Let’s use our commission reserves.”

Steube then weighed in with his recommendation.

“I favor a half cent or cent sales tax, which could not only fund repairs on the jail, but other county buildings,” Steube said.

Hunzeker said a half tax sales tax, which would require a voter referendum, would raise $20 million. A full cent sales tax would raise $40 million, he said.

When asked if there are other pressing needs from other departments in the county besides the jail repairs, Hunzeker pointed out that the county must update its public safety phones, which serve police, fire, EMS and emergency operators.

“We are hearing it will be $15 million to replace,” Hunzeker said.

The old system is 800 Megahertz and is circa 1989, said deputy administrator Karen Windon.

“Our vendors have told us we need to update,” Windon said.

Other buildings need repairs and county parks have issues, Hunzeker said.

“I’m sure there are parks that could use swings,” Hunzeker added. “And we have roads that need paving.”

“We are like a family that has $100 of bills but $80 of income right now,” Hunzeker added. “We have to pull $20 from savings to cover our needs. Everytime we take $20, it goes down. And there’s nothing on the horizon to replace it.”

The county has had more bills than income since 2007, due to property values in the county dropping, Hunzeker said.

“Our first deficit was in 2007 and, since then, we have lost 24 percent of our government and 300 employees have lost their jobs,” Hunzeker said.

Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-748-0411.