Special Reports

Belt-tightening time has returned for county

The citizen was obviously angry and very concerned when he appeared before our legislative delegation at a recent community forum.

He likened the spending habits of the Manatee County Commission to the behavior of "a drunken sailor on shore leave."

It's been a long time since I had a chat with a tipsy serviceman who just came ashore, but I am certain that conversation had very little to do with budgets, taxation or even how he would pay the bar bill.

After years of budget hearings and policy-making, this citizen got my attention. His level of frustration is reflected in everyone trying to make all the myriad ends meet: record high property assessments/land values; record high insurance rates; service demands, needs and expectations; soaring costs; millage rates and on and on.

So, while elected officials at the state level debate reform and effective relief, local policy-makers must answer the same question here.

How did we find our way into this tangled forest?

This past decade of unprecedented growth has spawned dollars and complacency.

Why? Because we have become largely an administrator-driven form of government.

This era of "high cotton" differs from the lean years, when fund balances were drawn down and county commissioners endured lengthy budget workshops agonizing over comparatively tiny expenditures. Yet those years also meant well-attended public hearings held in large spaces such as DeSoto Mall and the civic center. Criticism and rancor prevailed. In fact, then-Mayor Bill Evers once threw fake money at us, citing wasteful spending and incompetence.

Those times for me, personally, became a constant reminder that the whole budget process should be shared as the major policy document. Properly executed, it includes goals, priorities and a realistic vision. Those hearings provided contact with each department and displayed equipment, advancements in service and two-way communication between public servants and citizens, including constructive criticism and response.

So, where were these hearings and communications when the times were good? Were we saving enough money for the day when times got tough? That day is probably here, and if local elected officials don't deal with the economy's cycles, we neglect our community by leaving it to the administrator.

Policy-makers should feel the need to go over the budget item by item. Sometimes we must spend in order to save - or save in order to survive. Saving for tough times is imperative.

It is imperative that policy-makers provide citizens with information such as intricate federal and state mandates, complex funding for large capital projects, enterprise accounts and recurring countywide operational expenses.

It just doesn't cut it when government performance is measured by the number of employees or colorful pie charts in the annual calendar.

We are looking forward to a new style of administration and leadership in Manatee County.

Pat Glass, just retired from political office after almost three decades as Manatee County commissioner, writes every Wednesday to Herald readers about key issues and concerns with her unique insights. To reach her write to her c/o Bradenton Herald Metro Desk, 102 Manatee Ave. W., Bradenton, FL 34205.

Pat Glass

Citizen at Large


Find previous columns by Pat Glass in the Special Coverage area of our Web site.