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Hunzeker: County layoffs certain

MANATEE -- The Manatee County workforce will shrink, and capital improvement projects will be shelved in the next county budget, Administrator Ed Hunzeker told commissioners Thursday.

Hunzeker estimated the county will cut between $12 million and $14 million from this fiscal year’s $287 million general fund budget as it enters the next two-year budget cycle.

The cuts to an already bare-bones spending plan will be so severe, Hunzeker told commissioners, that he plans to start the budget process in March, two months earlier than in years past, to give all stakeholders time to make the case for their programs.

“It will be a challenge,” Hunzeker said. “To borrow a phrase that’s overused, we’ve gotten the low-hanging fruit. If we’re going back in after another 12 to 14 million dollars, it’s going to get painful.”

Hunzeker’s dire prediction came during a land-use meeting called to decide zoning questions. But budget discussions, brought up by Commissioner Joe McClash during commissioner comments at the end of the meeting, ruled the day.

The land-use meeting took 40 minutes. Commissioner comments lasted twice as long.

The county has cut $122 million, a total of 20 percent, and 183 positions from its budget in the past four years as property tax revenue has dwindled. The next two-year budget will be approved in September.

There are sure to be further layoffs because the county won’t be able to come up with the necessary budget cuts through other means, Hunzeker said. The county currently employs about 1,700.

“We’re a service industry,” Hunzeker said. “We have people that provide service. We can’t cut manufacturing; we can’t cut the inventory; we can’t cut the sales. It’s a people business.”

There are no capital improvement projects paid for by general fund money in the current budget. Hunzeker said some projects already under way may have to be delayed because the county won’t be able to operate the resulting services. He declined to comment on the projects in danger of being stopped.

Hunzeker raised eyebrows during a Tiger Bay club meeting last month by reminding audience members that local governments are not required by state law to fund a library system. That led some to believe the county could shut down all libraries.

“I didn’t mean to upset the library folks of the world. ... The subtle message I was trying to get across is we are reducing the budget more than the 20 percent we reduced it before. Anybody who shows up wanting anything new, we’ve got to be in a position to say, ‘Sorry, no,’ because what you might be saying if you’re adding something new is that’s more important than the things we’re currently doing,” Hunzeker said.

Also on Thursday, the commission:

n Approved by a 6-1 vote a site plan change for the River Wilderness Phase IV subdivision to reduce side-yard setbacks from 8 feet to 5 feet. The 53-lot subdivision is planned for almost 21 acres at the southwest corner of the Old Tampa Road and Fort Hamer Road intersection. Commissioner Robin DiSabatino voted against the change, saying heavy rains cause standing water when homes are built too close to each other.

n Heard from Commissioner Donna Hayes, who asked Hunzeker to issue a report on why there is no red-light enforcement camera at the intersection of Tara Boulevard and State Road 70. Hayes said the camera was promised within 60 days during the fall but is not yet installed. The intersection was the site of a crash that killed Mark Wandall in 2003 and spurred his widow, Melissa Wandall, to embark on a five-year campaign for a state law that authorized the cameras. There are several other cameras installed in the city of Bradenton and Manatee County.

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