Manatee-Sarasota counties courting stronger ties

Another promising development in the blossoming collaboration between Manatee and Sarasota occurred this week as the two county commissions met again to explore closer ties. Taxpayers should applaud the prospect of savings should the counties combine certain services and purchases in order to reduce expenses.

This would be a natural alliance, one rooted in history. The two counties were one for more than six decades -- from Manatee County's creation in 1855 until Sarasota became its own entity in 1921. The county line is not as divisive as, say, the waters of Tampa Bay.

The business and cultural connections could not be stronger, with Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport and the world-class Ringling Museum of Art sitting along the border as prime examples of those ties.

The two counties already work together on several regional entities, including the transportation-oriented Sarasota-Manatee Metropolitan Planning Organization and the broader Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority.

Manatee and Sarasota also coordinate transit operations, with MCAT and SCAT buses sharing a Tamiami Trail route between downtown Sarasota and Palmetto. Could the two transit systems be combined into one with a subsequent cost savings to both counties? That would require research.

The two counties also share regional traffic management duties with a state-of-the-art system housed in Manatee's Emergency Operations Center.

Natural resources -- water supplies and quality chief among them -- know no political boundaries. Sarasota dips into Lake Manatee for much of its water. Sarasota Bay is a vital environmental asset to both counties.

The only surprising element to this push for an expansion of regional cooperation is that it didn't happen sooner. But a struggling economy has a way of promoting unity.

While broad political consolidation is not on the table today -- the obstacles would be far too great -- various others ideas have substantial merit, from the very simple to the more complex.

Enhancements to public safety are leading the discussion, with the need by both counties to upgrade their respective two-way radio communications systems prompting the deeper talk.

Both counties need to replace aging and outdated networks vital to coordination during hurricanes and other emergencies. Combining two multimillion-dollar purchases into a single larger one will drive down the cost as vendors compete for a bigger contract -- an idea whose time should have come long ago.

Other public safety considerations include a unified emergency 911 system and reducing the expenses of the criminal justice system via collaboration on juvenile detention, jail diversion and pre-trail, court services and corrections facilities.

Outside tax savings due to greater efficiencies on direct government services, the most promising point of discussion covers economic development and job creation -- the biggest buzzwords of the past few years. This week's joint commission session focused on that outcome.

Both counties operate film commissions to promote the region to the movie and television industries.

But filmmakers are not interested in county boundaries in scouting locations. One central office working with one set of government requirements would expedite permitting, incentive applications and other paperwork.

The two counties have cooperated in the development of the world-class rowing center at Nathan Benderson Park, securing $5 million in state funding this year through lobbying efforts.

Manatee County has chipped in some money, too, though Sarasota is paying the lion's share. There is wide agreement that this park with be a tourism magnet and economic driver for years to come. This bicounty cooperation is already generating dividends with the park already hosting major events.

Manatee's Economic Development Corp. and its Sarasota counterpart are coordinating more and promoting the region to potential employers as well as tourists. Sarasota-Bradenton is one destination, as Elliott Falcione, Manatee's tourism director, told the joint commission session.

The ever opening lines of communication between the counties is most encouraging.

Manatee County's director of emergency operations, Bill Hutchison, put the matter succinctly this week: "We have the chance of a lifetime to really do something significant."