State Politics

Manatee looks at bright side of state budget

MANATEE — There weren’t many bright spots for Manatee County in the $66.5 billion budget signed Wednesday by Gov. Charlie Crist, but it could have been much worse, legislators said.

Still, it depends upon whom you ask whether or not the state’s meager resources were properly parceled out.

Republican legislators were proud that they were able, for the most part, to shield public schools from drastic cuts.

That certainly was the case for the Manatee County School District, which got $287,296,627, an increase in total revenues of $1.2 million, or four-tenths of 1 percent, according to information from Mixon & Associates, the district’s lobbying firm.

“We were lucky not to have to cut education,” said state Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton. “At the end of the day, we did pretty darned good. I think the people should be very pleased with that budget.”

Manatee County Schools Superintendent Tim McGonegal seconded his view, saying, “We’re very pleased, we never thought it would end up this good.”

But Democratic legislators were critical of the budget outcome.

“I was unhappy with the budget as a product, I think the cost of it weighed too heavily on middle class people,” said Rep. Keith Fitzgerald, D-Sarasota. “There were lots of options on the table we should have looked at.”

He was angry about Republican legislators’ decision to turn down more than $400 million in unemployment benefits, part of a federal stimulus package that would have required the state to extend the period of time people could receive unemployment.

Still, the budget did harbor money for a few new programs, such as $60,140 for a new gang outreach program in Bradenton’s Pride Park area, said Mike Neuges, county human services manager.

A Meals on Wheels emergency family food program got an increase from $21,500 last year to $30,000 this year to help victims of the recession, he said.

“They determined there was a big need for families in tough times as far as food goes,” he noted.

The Children Services Advisory Board, which oversees programs for abused, neglected, at-risk and economically disadvantaged children, plans to spend $200,000 less this year than last year to accommodate state budget cuts, Neuges said.

“We just used a scalpel approach this year in doing cuts,” he noted.

The Manatee Regional Detention Center, which houses juveniles from Manatee and two other counties awaiting court sentencing, got the same amount as last year, he said, with Manatee’s share of the tab listed at $2,590,807.

State Rep. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, was pleased with continued financing for a diversion program that will send the sick to rural health centers rather than more expensive hospital emergency rooms.

“I can tell you the ER diversion program has continued to fare well, which is extremely important to Manatee County, Sarasota and DeSoto and Hardee, because it’s a program we began funding two years ago, in conjunction with Manatee Rural Health,” he said, estimating the allocation for several counties at roughly $3 million.

Galvano also lauded $2 million appropriated for the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority, charged with creating a master transportation plan for seven Tampa Bay counties.

“It’s very important to me, continuation of funding for TBARTA,” said Galvano. “It continues to allow our regional transportation authority to put together a regional plan.”

Manatee County will also benefit from additional slots the state will be able to add after streamlining the Florida KidCare program, a state health insurance program for uninsured children under 19, he said. The program covers doctor visits, check-ups and shots, hospital stays, surgery, prescriptions, emergencies, hearing, vision and dental care.

And Galvano also noted that eventually, Manatee County might get its share of a $300 million windfall from gaming establishments if Gov. Crist renegotiates an agreement legislators passed with The Seminole Tribe of Florida.

Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at (941) 708-7908.

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