Sheriff says Manatee County growth is 'alarming.' It could mean your taxes go up

The Manatee County Sheriff's Office headquarters.
The Manatee County Sheriff's Office headquarters.

For Manatee County's future, continuing growth bodes well for its economy. Manatee County Sheriff Rick Wells instead worries.

"For us, when you can't keep up with that growth, it's alarming," Wells told county commissioners during a budget session Wednesday.

The county's population has increased by 16 percent in the last decade, and the sheriff's office receives about 368,000 calls for service per year. To be able to meet the demands of a growing county, Wells had wanted another 18 deputies, four traffic deputies, four corrections officers and two community services officers for the next fiscal year. But County Administrator Ed Hunzeker instead suggested in his recommended 2019 budget that the department get 10 deputies and another two for the city of Anna Maria.

While the sheriff's office was recommended to receive a 6.2 percent increase compared to last year's budget, Wells thought the nearly $5 million in unfunded programs would put a strain on the department. With a bigger population and more areas to patrol, they would have to defensively police rather than proactively, he predicted.

As commissioners reviewed recommended budgets for constitutional officers — court administration, state attorney, guardian ad litem, property appraiser, clerk of circuit court, supervisor of elections and the sheriff's office — county commissioners flagged unfunded programs totaling more than $5.3 million for further review. On Tuesday, the board had flagged about $1.78 million in county department programs.

In a bid to convince Manatee County commissioners why he needed more deputies, the Manatee County Sheriff's Office showed this video explaining how growth in East Manatee puts a strain on their resources.

Many of the programs Wednesday were highlighted because of the work that needs to be done to recognize Manatee County's most at-risk citizens, like a guardianship monitor to protect rights of those who have developmental disabilities or brain diseases and are assigned a guardian, or adding a full-time coordinator for the 12th Judicial Circuit Drug Court.

Public safety is by far the largest chunk of Manatee County's budget, accounting for 56 percent of the general fund. To make sure they would carefully consider what they were and weren't funding, commissioners flagged the entire sheriff's office unfunded budget.

Commissioner Stephen Jonsson suggested an idea that they could offer the sheriff's office a lump sum and he could do what he saw fit. Wells took a liking to the thought. A potential solution to find these funds, rather than cut other programs, would be to raise taxes. But some commissioners were against the idea.

"We need to look at other ways to do this," Commissioner Betsy Benac said. "Are there ways to handle growth without just increasing taxes?"

Manatee County Administrator Ed Hunzeker presented the board of county commissioners with his recommended budget Thursday during a work session, the first of several talks leading to a finalized budget in September.

Financial management director Jan Brewer offered a potential estimate: If taxes were to increase by 0.12 mills, this would equal a $20 increase for a resident with a $150,000 house, and an additional $4.3 million in revenue. Commissioner Robin DiSabatino also inquired about what millage rates would amount to $2 million and $3 million revenues.

The recommended increase in 10 road deputies, rather than the 18 requested, was based off of how many deputies were available to patrol 1,000 residents. Wells said having 1.41 deputies per thousand residents was not enough.

Commissioner Vanessa Baugh agreed with Benac, saying she would have a difficult time agreeing to a tax hike.

"We need to figure out how to live within our means," Baugh added. "My residents would never be in favor of me voting to increase taxes."

2 secondary
Tight inventory and rising prices for homes have helped make Manatee County a sellers’ market, even as builders continue to break ground on new homes in East Manatee. Herald file photo