Possible regional cooperation likely topic at meeting of Manatee, Sarasota commissions

MANATEE — The Manatee County Commission is slated to meet tonight with its counterpart in Sarasota.

Also slated to attend are officials of the state’s 12th Circuit Court.

One topic that is expected to come up for discussion is the idea of creating a regional authority that would allow Manatee and Sarasota counties to share some services as a cost-cutting measure.

The idea came up during a workshop meeting earlier this month at Manatee’s County Administrative Center, when commissioners learned that an upgrade of an outdated two-way radio communications network for local government agencies would cost a minimum of $13 million. One possibility would be to create a regional interlocal agreement between the two counties that might allow for a joint purchase. But Commissioner Joe McClash proposed something more formal -- a regional public safety authority that could oversee a variety of services for both counties.

Those services might include traffic management; emergency medical services; 911 services, or perhaps co-habitation at Manatee’s $55 million, state-of-the-art Emergency Operations Center in Bradenton, commissioners said.

Cooperative ventures might also apply to jail facilities, court services, and maybe eventually even firefighting services, they suggested.

Perhaps the two counties could also merge their local health departments, as is permitted under a bill passed recently by the Florida Legislature, said local government expert Sarah Bleakley.

“It does permit counties to merge health departments,” said Bleakley. “Counties have broad power to act jointly if they want to, there’s no prohibition against it.”

Cragin Mosteller, a spokeswoman for the Florida Association of Counties, said that, while the association doesn’t collect information about such matters, she found the idea of “cross-county merging” to be “pretty unique.”

“County and cities have often talked about consolidating to save dollars,” she said today, but added the discussion between Manatee and Sarasota counties is the only instance she’s heard of in which two counties sought to consolidate services.