MANATEE -- Manatee County residents could for the eighth consecutive year see no tax rate increase under the county's recommended 2015-16 $550 million budget.
On Thursday afternoon, County Administrator Ed Hunzeker presented his recommended budget to the county commission.
"This budget reflects a welcome return of upward growth within our economy," Hunzeker said, reading his eight-page 2016 Budget Message on Thursday. "Declining property values and substantially lower tax bases presented our local government with great challenges of maintaining service levels with fewer people and resources. I believe we met most of those challenges and we are ready for a new stage of recovery in Manatee County."
The recommended budget is $20 million, or 3.6 percent, more than the county's current $530 million budget.
The net budget figure is a close estimate as property values for next year haven't yet been finalized since the Property Appraiser's Office will certify taxable values on July 1. The budget presumes taxable property values will rise by 9 percent -- meaning some property owners likely will pay more in taxes even if the millage rate stays the same.
Hunzeker said he is statutorily not required to recommend a budget until July 15 but by delivering it now, it gives the commission more time to review the budget.
Thursday's meeting was the first in a series of meetings expected to take place during the next two weeks on the recommended budget. In September, the commission will adopt its budget in two public hearings. Thursday's meeting was also the first time the commissioners heard the recommended budget.
In his proposal, Hunzeker is recommending funding for the county's five priorities, which he outlined to the commission at a April work session. The three priorities the commission previously committed to for next year include $15 million for a new public radio system; $381,456 for Manatee County Area Transit system expansion; and $286,186 for needed upgrades at Animal Services. The other two priorities are $6.8 million for employee pay raises and $6.9 million to fund local health care needs.
In the budget, Hunzeker is also not recommending funding for new tax-supported positions in the county's constitutional offices, including the sheriff's office, or departments but does include a 4-percent raise for constitutional offices. The county will continue its Pay for Performance program for other employees.
With a $20 million larger recommended budget, Commissioner Charles Smith said he wants to know where that money is going to be used toward because there are neighborhood that have no sidewalks and lighting.
"We have to have a serious conversation to deal with those issues," he said. "I really think the issue of infrastructure is one of the issues that we really need to discuss. ... No commissioner should be up here arguing about sidewalks and lights. It is the basic quality of life."
Commissioner Vanessa Baugh said all over the county there are issues similar to what Smith is talking about and while traditionally they may not have paid for those items, they may need to "change our thought about how we do things."
"Traditions are always made to be changed," she said. "I didn't get elected to do the same thing. I wanted to improve the quality of life for residents in Manatee. These are issues that we do need to address. We do need to come up with a plan."
Manatee County is the only county on the west coast of Florida without an infrastructure sales tax, which could generate about $25 million annually for the county, Hunzeker said.
With the uncertainty in the state budget regarding Medicaid expenses as the state Legislature enters a special session beginning Monday, Hunzeker said the county will fund health care, setting the money aside in reserves until "we figure out what state and feds are up to."
The outcome of the special session could affect the county's budget and how much reserves the county could have to use, Hunzeker said. If the board decides they don't want to fund health care, then the money will remain in reserves, which is the county's "savings account," Hunzeker said.
"We will either dip more or less into reserves," Hunzeker said. "We have substantial reserves that withstand some dipping into reserves on general fund. As the tax base grows, we will work our way out. We are heading in the right direction. It depends if we can continue to hold line on spending."
Hunzeker said in 2017, revenues could exceed expenses.
"We are not there in 2016 but could be there in 2017," Hunzeker said.
During Thursday's meeting, Hunzeker said a challenge that county will face going forward is finding ways to maintain existing assets.
"We have money that we spend on new things for new growth through impact fees," he said. "We don't have a dedicated source of money for assets that we have, to maintain those assets. That is a problem in this government because we have to take money from property taxes to maintain assets."
As the county looks into the future, Hunzeker said they will need to come up with a plan.
"It's a challenge that we face and we struggle with that," Hunzeker said. "How do you maintain those? We have in this budget to use some of the reserves in the general fund to maintain parks equipment but that is using your reserves to maintain that. We can't continue to do that because we have a limited amount of reserves."
Claire Aronson, Manatee County reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7024 or at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter@Claire_Aronson.