Rubonia residents consider march to catch county's attention

RUBONIA -- Alfred Smith knows he can live somewhere else but he doesn't want to. For him and many other Rubonia residents, Rubonia is home.

"By choice, I live here," said 59-year-old Smith, who has lived in Rubonia for his entire life. "I want to live here."

But as summer approaches, concerns among Rubonia residents persist and even heighten. With ditches, no paved sidewalks, a closed community center and what residents call a poor drainage system, residents such as Smith are worried about the lack of summer activities for the children, the worsening mosquito problem and possible flooding because of the backed-up drains.

"We are underserved," Smith said. "You don't have to be a rocket scientist. Look around. We are one of the oldest communities in Manatee County, but we look the worst. We are not asking to be Lakewood Ranch or Panther Ridge because we are not them."

Rubonia is located off U.S. 41, north of Palmetto and south of Interstate 275.

Time and time again, whenever Rubonia residents ask Manatee County government for what residents consider to be the basics, they are told there is no funding for the improvements, said 65-year-old Charles Miller Sr., who until recently was the president of the Rubonia Community Association.

"We are just fed up with it," he said.

Rubonia residents such as Smith and Miller said they feel neglected by the county's elected officials, particularly District 1 commissioner Larry Bustle, who represents Rubonia. Bustle has held forums so citizens can bring con

cerns to him, but Miller said they aren't listened to as development keeps occurring out in east and other areas of the county.

"That guy does not care about us or our community," Miller said of Bustle. "It is a bad situation."

Bustle said he appreciates the concerns and that feeling, but he's spoken with them about the lack of sidewalks and piping of the ditches since he was elected to the commission in 2008. Bustle has filed for re-election for his District 1 commission seat for 2016.

"The reality is, it is topographically very low," Bustle said. "It is an area very much affected by the coming and going of the tides. There's not a lot physically you can do about that. We try to keep the drains open and anything that is possible, we try to do."

At a District 1 advisory board meeting in March, an agenda item about growth was discussed. But for residents of Rubonia, Miller said, "How can we grow if they don't help us grow?"

"The county doesn't do anything," Miller said. "It makes me angry because we don't get anything over here."

Bustle said they are interested in Rubonia and are not neglecting them.

He said the closed Rubonia Community Center is a very big concern to him, as is the annual Mardi Gras parade, which was canceled this year.

"It was a pretty good success," Bustle said of when the center was open. "It drew the community together. There was something there for everyone. Something for the kids and the adults. ... Our plan has been and is to send out invitations to negotiate with agencies that show the county that they are ready, willing and able to operate the community center. We need it to be a self-supporting operation. We want to get them in there. We certainly want them to operate it."

Bustle added that commissioner Charles Smith, who has family from Rubonia, is also interested in Rubonia, and that he would invite his involvement.

"We want to work to solve the problems, but we want to do it in a smart way," Bustle said. "Rubonia is one of the gems of Manatee County. It is a community that goes back a long way and it is a very valuable part of the county. It means a lot to a lot of people and we want to preserve it. I'm certainly in the forefront of those that want to preserve it."

Residents want the basics

Rubonia residents are not asking for lavish things and are willing to do what they can to help, Alfred Smith said.

"We can ask for more lavish things, but give us the basics," Smith said. "We are trying ourselves. We want to do stuff."

As the county enters its annual budget process, Rubonia residents are hopeful money will be earmarked for the needed infrastructure in the neighborhood but know it is not likely.

According to Nick Azzara, Manatee County spokesman, the public works and neighborhood services departments are the only two departmental budgets that would have any funding for Rubonia and currently there is no funding in the budget being recommended for the next fiscal year. The area is no longer eligible for federal Community Development Block Grant funding.

However, if a commissioner notes an unfunded item or issue in the proposed budget and has another commissioner also vote to have it flagged, then it will undergo additional review before the July budget reconciliation, according to Azzara.

"At the reconciliation date, a majority of the board may then add the item to the budget while making a corresponding reduction elsewhere," he said. 'Toss Rubonia a bone'

In the past, the county sometimes will "toss (Rubonia) a bone" by putting in something like a soccer goal, Smith said.

"Thank you for the soccer goal," he said. "We don't want to be appeased. We don't need bones tossed at us. We need the commissioners to be commissioners."

While Rubonia has several needs, if the neighborhood can get the ditches filled in and better drainage, Miller said, they would be happy.

"We could probably live without sidewalks," Miller said.

Retention ponds can help the drainage, Miller said, pointing to houses along on 69th, 70th and 71st streets as especially bad.

"Our drainage is bad here," Miller said. "Those people are going to get flooded when we have a bad rain."

County involvement in Rubonia

During a recent routine drive-through of Rubonia, an area superintendent with the county public works department noticed a driveway culvert on 72nd Court East with root intrusion, causing the inlet to be elevated and partially blocked by the roots. The repair, which was self-initiated, will reduce the amount of water being held there unnecessarily.

"If it is pouring and high tide, water is going away, but not going away as fast as it is falling," Butzow said, adding that the drainage functions as they've inspected it.

Butzow said Rubonia is in a low-lying area and even if the ditches are piped, it will stay the same. The situation is similar in Cortez Village, Butzow added.

"The idea is if we pipe the ditches, it isn't going to change the flooding," Butzow said.

In regard to the sidewalks, the county has a long list of areas that are lacking sidewalks, but Ron Schulhofer, public works department director, said the county has a particular focus when it comes to sidewalks.

"Getting kids to school is the priority should funding become available," Schulhofer said. "We would love for every street to have sidewalks. That's our goal. ... They are not ignored."

The effort to try to get assistance from the county is not new. While Rubonia residents have been playing by the rules, they are getting "sick and tired" of hearing the same thing, Miller said. Because of the newer mobile home communities surrounding Rubonia, county officials have said that Rubonia is not eligible for federal Community Development Block Grants because, Miller said, the people living in the area's newer trailer parks have income levels that are too high, even though many Rubonia residents don't make more than the level to not be eligible.

But Cheri Coryea, director of the county neighborhood services department, called it a perception on their part.

Prior to the 2010 census, the 365 homes in the Rubonia area were eligible for federal grants. But that year, a greater portion of the newer residents, who had higher incomes, responded to the census than long-term Rubonia residents, Coryea said.

Some of the projects neighborhood services did in Rubonia prior to 2010 included water hookups, housing rehabilitation and road repaving.

Coryea said they went door to door in areas such as Rubonia and Samoset to encourage people to fill out the census.

"I have no other funds that are unrestricted that I can just go out there and do something," Coryea said. "We have continued to keep their concerns at the forefront."

In the future, Coryea said Rubonia residents should encourage their neighbors to fill out the census.

"They can help themselves, too, by getting other residents out to try and promote it," Coryea said.

Residents consider a march

Miller said they have been trying to catch the county's attention, but year after year they've been overlooked.

"This is the stuff that concerns the community," Miller said. "We are here trying to wave a flag. ... We got to light fire. We need to light sparks."

The call to action may include a march from Rubonia on U.S. 41 on a Saturday to get their message out.

Smith said thousands of people would join in on the march.

"We don't want to shoot a flare at the helicopter that will save us," Smith said.

But Miller said if they have to walk to catch the attention, then they are going to do that.

"We will walk," Miller said. "We've been crying for a long time but maybe we aren't crying loud enough."

Shirts saying "We're Rubonia. We matter" have been ordered as another tool to get the message out.

Until areas such as Rubonia are helped, Manatee County can not be measured as a "great community," Smith said.

"We can't be a great community as Manatee County or Bradenton or Palmetto," Smith said. "It will never happen when you have our parts."

Claire Aronson, Manatee County reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7024 or at caronson@bradenton.com. Follow her on Twitter @Claire_Aronson.

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