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Manatee County officials propose $458 million budget

MANATEE -- County officials Thursday unveiled a proposed $458,131,802 budget for the coming fiscal year that calls for no tax increases.

The budget is designed to avoid layoffs and to restructure employee benefit costs to provide workers with more money, since they have been without raises for almost five years, said County Administrator Ed Hunzeker.

County employees have lost ground because they are paying more for health benefits, and due to changes by the Florida Legislature, are also paying 3 percent of their salaries toward state retirement benefits, Hunzeker said.

Hunzeker plans to eliminate by attrition only four positions, in property management, he said.

Although there are many signs that the economic downturn is beginning to ease, local property values continue to decline, which means the county budget picture is not yet improving, Hunzeker said.

However, he advised against a severe, $4 million budget reduction contemplated last year, favoring the use of reserves, instead.

"We're hunkering down to make it through the second year of the two-year budget," Hunzeker told the Bradenton Herald editorial board earlier this week.

"We're still in a deficit position, spending more than we're bringing in," he added. Even if the economy picks up, it will still take years for current revenues to equal current expenditures, he said.

A figure meant to pay part of the Medicaid tab of several millions that state officials claim the county owes, despite serious billing irregularities, is included in the budget, said James Seuffert, director of financial management.

He noted that the figure could change, and that, at least, payments would be spread over three years' time.

Seuffert said many county property owners are still experiencing a drop in value, and will be seeing reductions in taxes, too.

He also predicted that, if constitutional amendments on the November ballot involving taxes pass, county officials would be grappling with still deeper declines of annual tax revenues.

Commissioners Carol Whitmore and Donna Hayes reported that they had fielded requests from people wanting items included in the budget, which they said they referred to Hunzeker to review.

One bright spot in the budget was increased revenues in the Building Department, which regulates building and development projects.

Hunzeker proposed an across-the-board 6 percent drop in building fees.

The budget would reduce county operating expenses by another $4.3 million, but since capital budgets are up $11.1 million, the overall net budget would be $6.8 million more than last year's adopted budget, according to Nick Azzara, the county's information outreach coordinator.

Even with the slight increase this year, the budget has declined by 22.4 percent, or $132.6 million, over the past six years, and property taxes have fallen by 35 percent, or $82.7 million, he said.

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