Proposed budget lowers property taxes, raises fees

BRADENTON — Property owners in Manatee County may see their taxes cut, but the cost of government services could increase if commissioners approve a proposed budget of about $496.9 million.

County Administrator Ed Hunzeker gave the commissioners their first look Thursday during a work session at how he plans to trim next year’s spending.

Hunzeker’s proposal, which reduces the budget by $33.7 million from this year’s, recommends keeping the property tax rate at about $6.30 for every $1,000 of assessed value.

The owners of a home with a taxable assessed value of $150,000 that qualifies for the homestead exemption would pay $630 toward its Manatee County portion in property taxes.

This could be less than last year with the falling housing prices and consequential taxable assessed values.

But if you plan on playing a round of golf or a couple sets of tennis at county facilities, it may cost more. An increase in access fees was proposed.

“There are some fee increases proposed,” Hunzeker said, “along with expense reduction as we continue to downsize.”

The administrator said he was responding to the taxpayers demand for smaller government.

Along with the reduced property tax revenues because of the economic downturn, the Florida Legislature in 2007 adopted property tax reforms that restrict the amount of tax increases local governments can assess.

Developers and builders also can expect to pay higher fees for plan reviews and building permits.

Hunzeker said a study of the building department found that more than $600,000 in expenses were paid out of the general fund.

A similar study will be conducted for the planning department, which reviews plans for new developments.

“We’re not covering our costs,” Hunzeker said.

Commissioner Ron Getman said he agreed with users of specific county services paying their way.

“To keep our taxes low I support user fees for those who use our services,” Getman said.

One fee Hunzeker suggested the commission consider was a business license.

He said he wanted to institute the fee to provide funding for county economic development programs.

The business license also will provide public safety agencies, such as fire departments, with information they need.

Hunzeker said he anticipated a $22 million decrease in revenue, of which about $16 million is in property taxes.

Property taxes make up only $190 million or 38 percent of the county’s total revenues of $496.9 million.

The next largest source of revenue is service fees; about $165.4 million or 33 percent of the total.

The rest comes from licenses and permits, $82 million, or 17 percent; funds from other government agencies, $34 million, or 7 percent; and other taxes, $25 million, or 5 percent.

Additional cuts of $11 million had to be found to balance the budget, Hunzeker said.

The administrator said to make up the difference, several actions will be taken.

One, which the Bradenton Herald reported Wednesday, was the elimination of 82 job positions in this year’s budget, of which about half would not be filled when they became vacant.

Thirty-eight of the positions are currently vacant, and some of the remaining 44 employees will be given an opportunity to apply for other county positions that are vacant but not being eliminated.

Many long-term employees were some of those whose positions that were eliminated, creating a concern for several commissioners.

McClash said the loss of these employees will create a “brain drain.”

“A lot of these people have institutional knowledge,” he said.

Hunzeker said the budget-approval procedures will be a changing process, because the actual tax revenue figures will not be available until July 1.

“Hopefully the difference from our estimates will be minimal,” he said.

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