In final annual report, Manatee administrator expresses pride, highlights hurdles

Ed Hunzeker gave his final annual report as county administrator to the Board of County Commissioners, recapping the latest achievements, projects and next steps for his predecessor.

He did so “like a proud father,” Commissioner Betsy Benac remarked Tuesday morning. Hunzeker, who will retire March 1 after more than 12 years with Manatee County Government, thanked his 1,800 employees before he began.

The report kicked off by acknowledging some of the accolades county staff had earned in 2018, including the Manatee lifeguard unit earning the Beach Patrol of the Year title, the county’s continued success as a no-kill animal shelter and an impressive response to red tide.

Even though 2018 was a busy year in Manatee County, Hunzeker, 71, predicts that a persistent algae bloom that plagued Manatee waters for months will go down as the hallmark event.

“(The year) will be remembered by many Floridians as the year a severe red tide bloom had significant impacts on our local beaches and, in turn, one of our economy’s biggest drivers, the tourism industry,” he said.

Hunzeker added that the determination of county employees to pitch in to tackle the problem was something to be admired. Workers had scooped more than 300 tons of the red tide debris in a two-month period, he said.

“The red tide cleanup effort is a prime example of the perseverance and dedication our workforce shows in a year.”

The county’s dedication to public safety was another point of pride for the outgoing administrator. While Manatee County didn’t suffer serious effects from Hurricane Michael, a team of the county’s public safety workers was sent to assist in the Florida Panhandle.

“Interim Emergency Management Chief Steve Litschauer led a group of nearly 70 paramedics, Public Safety, law enforcement and fire district representatives to Gulf County, only miles from where the devastating storm landfall,” Hunzeker said.

Other notable improvements to public safety included the county’s decision to provide additional funding to the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office for the purpose of hiring 12 new deputies and the construction of a controversial public safety radio tower system at Kinnan Park that allows officials to communicate more reliably.

2018 was a great year for parks throughout the county, as well. It was the first time the infrastructure sales tax was put to action when funds were used to expand the dog park at G.T. Bray Park, Hunzeker said.

Robinson Preserve also saw improvements, with the restoration of wetlands, new canoe launches and the debut of the Mosaic Center for Nature, Exploration, Science and Technology. In 2019, he noted, Robinson is slated to have another 150 acres of abandoned farmland transformed into a quality coastal habitat.

“Local parks and preserves offer unique benefits to public health, the environment, the economy and local property values,” Hunzeker told commissioners. “This board is uniquely positioned to leave an incredible legacy in the areas of parks and recreation as we implement the Parks Master Plan in 2019.”

The issue of parks led Hunzeker to forewarn board members about looming issues that will need to be handled in the coming months. For one, Parrish continues to grow, which may indicate the county’s responsibility to provide more services in the area.

“We will do our best to keep pace with all of the growth by providing traffic improvements, but what role should a county government have in helping a new region like Parrish develop a sense of place or somewhere to see friends other than Publix or the Parrish Railroad Museum?” Hunzeker asked.

Similarly, the portion of Manatee County east of Port Manatee is ripe for development. He suggested the county look for a way to “jumpstart business” by investing in, “costly new roads and utilities that will pave the way for investors to open shop.”\

Cheri Coryea, a current deputy county administrator, addresses the Board of County Commissioner’s concerns about her lack of a college degree at a Jan. 22 workshop to discuss a replacement for Ed Hunzeker. Commissioners agreed that she would be a suitable interim county administrator, but struggled with the fact that she does not have a bachelor’s degree, a requirement of Manatee County’s own making. Ryan Callihan rcallihan@bradenton.com

Commissioners previously indicated they would like to appoint Deputy County Administrator Cheri Coryea to the position of acting county administrator while they conduct a search for a permanent replacement. In his closing remarks, Hunzeker vouched for the expertise of Coryea.

“(Coryea) has again proven herself to be a strong leader in this government and capable of added responsibility at each stop in her career here.”

Other challenges include further hardening of county facilities, providing more government services in the county’s population center out east and identifying a site for a new county landfill.

Commissioners thanked their administrator for his years-long commitment to Manatee County Government.

“It’s very hard what you’ve had to do over the years and you’ve kept your head high and endured,” said Commissioner Carol Whitmore.

Commissioner Misty Servia added that Hunzeker had done his best to leave the board, “in a really great spot with a really great team.”

Hunzeker attributed his success to his father, who he says taught him the No. 1 rule for hiring employees.

“My father taught me that you hire them and then get out of the way, and that stems from this board,” Hunzeker explained. “I’ve worked for boards that want to get down to the minutiae, but you haven’t, and you allow the staff to embrace the job because they know that it’s their job.”

Hunzeker was hired as county administrator in November 2006. He previously worked as an assistant county administrator in neighboring Hillsborough County for 15 years. In retirement, he plans to spend more time with his wife and grandchildren, Hunzeker told board members.

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