Manatee Commissioner Charles Smith proposes tax increase to light all neighborhoods

MANATEE -- Manatee County Commissioner Charles Smith said he wants every neighborhood in unincorporated Manatee County to have street lighting.

To pay for these public safety needs, Smith told his fellow commissioners Tuesday he will bring a motion at the end of July to increase the unincorporated municipal services tax up to one mill over a 10-year period. Commissioners next meet on the 2015-16 budget July 30 when they will set a tentative maximum millage rate for the property appraiser.

A one mill increase for property owners in unincorporated Manatee County would generate $19.1 million over a 10-year period in today's dollars.

The value of the tax increase is based on the property appraiser's June 1 preliminary estimate of taxable property rates rising 7.9 percent. Property values won't be finalized until July 1 when the Property Appraiser's Office certifies taxable values.

If Smith's tax increase in unincorporated Manatee County is passed, a typical homeowner with a home val

ued at $150,000 would pay $150 a year more in property taxes.

Although it is too early for an estimated cost of installing street lights in all neighborhoods, Ron Schulhofer, county Public Works Department director, said staff will meet with Peace River Electric and Florida Power and Light officials over the next few weeks about Smith's proposal.

Schulhofer said they will wait until after results of Smith's motion before moving forward but want to let the power providers know ahead of time so they can be prepared.

"We won't do a lot of work until the board's consensus of what they want to do," he said.

In County Administrator Ed Hunzeker's recommended $550 million budget for 2015-16, he recommended no tax increases for an eighth consecutive year. The county millage rate is 7.0435, including .6109 mills for the unincorporated municipal services tax, which Hunzeker has said makes it cheaper to live in "unincorporated Manatee County than anywhere else on the Gulf Coast."

During budget work sessions, commissioners flagged more than 20 items Hunzeker didn't recommend for funding. The items, which total $5.07 million, include an ambulance for the Parrish area and 12 more deputies for the Manatee County Sheriff's Office.

Since Smith's proposal is only for the unincorporated county, the new funds could not be used to pay for flagged items. Increasing the overall millage rate would be necessary.

Hunzeker previously told the Bradenton Herald he "can't see the board wanting to increase taxes."

"They'd have to talk themselves into it," he said.

Commission Chairwoman Betsy Benac said they want to hear what residents think about a possible property tax rate increase.

"If that is the desire of the public, we want to hear from them," Benac said.

At the June 10 budget work session, Commissioner Carol Whitmore said her message to Hunzeker was: "Figure out the budget and don't raise the millage."

Whitmore said a millage increase, which she would probably not support, would be the only way to get what everybody wants.

"This isn't even easy for me to bring up," she said. "I don't know if the community has the stomach for it."

At a community meeting Wednesday, Commissioner Vanessa Baugh, who has filed for re-election in 2016, told constituents she would not support a tax increase but expects it to be a hot topic come July 30.

"I am not, not, not in favor of raising taxes," Baugh said. "I think we need to be smart. We are not the same county we were 10, 15, 20 years ago. We have changed. ... Why would I be in favor of an increase in millage rate when revenue is up? We just have to be smart."

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

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