Time for Manatee County to address Rubonia's languishing issues

The small community of Rubonia deserves more attention from Manatee County government. The mostly poor minority neighborhood north of Palmetto mobilized this week, taking a proactive approach to their plight by descending on a county commission meeting some 20 residents strong.

Kudos to them for imploring commissioners to act on behalf of a constituency whose voices have cried out for years for a solution to flooding, sidewalks and other infrastructure needs.

Even though Rubonia sits only a few feet above sea level and is susceptible to tidal action from nearby Terra Ceia Bay, one community activist, Charles Miller Sr., blames some the historic flooding problems on the stormwater run-off caused by the reconstruction of U.S. 41 back in the 1960s. That would place some responsibility on government to address the problem, regardless of current county policy.

According to county Administrator Ed Hunzeker, residents of county neighborhoods would have to approve a special assessment to cover improvement costs. Since Manatee County does not charge a stormwater fee, as is common around Florida, Manatee policy puts the burden directly on neighborhood property owners.

Furthermore, in a May 21 guest column Hunzeker penned in response to an earlier Herald editorial that called for county action on Rubonia, he wrote an exception to current policy would create "a serious fairness issue" that would "invite resentment and expensive litigation for those who have had to pay for the same improvements."

Also, he stated, neighborhoods whose requests for improvements have been rejected "will be next in line to ask Manatee taxpayers to underwrite" those projects.

Apparently, poor communities whose property owners can ill afford expensive special assessments -- Hunzeker estimated Rubonia properties would pay $205 annually for 20 years under one cost estimate for improvements -- are simply left in the lurch.

Shame on us as a society if we abandon the poor. Can't the commission craft an exception to the rule that would sidestep any challenges?

During a county commission meeting late last month when Hunzeker unveiled his recommended budget, Commissioner Charles Smith asked for a "serious conversation" on neighborhood infrastructure needs, including sidewalks, which Rubonia lacks.

Commissioner Vanessa Baugh directly addressed Hunzeker's key point. She advanced the idea that the policy against county funds being spent on infrastructure improvements may need to change. "These are issues that we do need to address," she stated.

Yes indeed.

Ditches line Rubonia's narrow streets, and children must walk down the pavement to school bus stops and anywhere else. Sidewalks would greatly enhance public safety.

During his address to commissioners on Tuesday, Miller commented on another issue with open ditches: For many years, Rubonia residents have been "begging" for stormwater drains to replace the ditches. "Mosquitoes eat us alive. ... And we've been promised."

Those ditches present both public safety and public health threats, and, we should add, for far too long.

Hunzeker did offer a solution at the May 28 commission meeting. Manatee County stands alone among Florida's west coast without an infrastructure sales tax, which could generate some $25 million annually. That would require voter approval.

Commissioner Smith plans to propose a millage rate increase for infrastructure such as street lights, he said Tuesday. That would be a quicker solution in lieu of a voter referendum on a dedicated sales tax hike.

Whether taxpayers are in the mood for either will be a topic of discussion at future commission meetings, with the next one on July 30.

To be fair, the county has not completely ignored Rubonia, as the Neighborhood Services Department has been involved in community affairs.

And the county is taking steps to address one neighborhood asset in need of major repairs, the Rubonia Community Center, shuttered in 2013 over the lack of money for programs. Manatee will host a meeting in July to discuss how organizations interested in operating the center can best present proposals.

And, to offset the center's closure this summer, the county allocated more than $30,000 to the Boys & Girls Clubs of Manatee County to transport Rubonia children to the Palmetto club for free summer activities. Forty Rubonia youths between the ages of 5 and 17 are participating.

While this is all well and good, the big issues remain unsolved, as has been the case for decades. The time for a solution is now.

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