County at critical crossroads on public service

County Administrator Ed Hunzeker speaks during a Tuesday budget work session.
County Administrator Ed Hunzeker speaks during a Tuesday budget work session. caronson@bradenton.com

Manatee County government has held the line on the millage rate on property taxes for a decade, shedding around 300 jobs from the workforce during the Great Recession while also keeping wages lower than surrounding counties. Today, as county commissioners weigh the recommendations in a $568 million budget for the coming fiscal year, a demanding story is again unfolding from various departments.

At some point, commissioners must realize that doing more with less in order to survive is no longer a viable blueprint for serving the public as the population surges and growth follows. This past week those elected officials heard from department directors pitching justifications for more resources to meet the demands of the community.

Just one example of this came from Bob Smith, the county’s public safety director. On Tuesday he told commissioners that call volumes for emergency medical services are so frequent his crews rush from one to another — with little if any downtime during a 24-hour shift. “We are not adequately staffed to address those call volumes in EMS,” he informed commissioners, also noting another stress point on his employees: 53 employees were held over for mandatory overtime.

We hold the greatest respect for EMS first responders. We should not compel nor expect life-and-death rescue and medical operations to be performed with alert and complete concentration after such a lengthy shift. While we’re confident in EMS crews under such stress, they deserve rest. The Public Safety Department is understaffed and underpaid.

So is the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office, even with the eight new patrol deputies proposed in the new budget. The population increase demands additional protection.

The recommended county budget as presented by Administrator Ed Hunzeker earlier this month includes those eight deputies as well as eight school resource officers in middle schools. Commissioners expressed support for six new dispatchers, four corrections deputies, two forensic analysts and a public record clerk. Even with those new dispatchers, the MCSO will only match the same workforce as in 1990 — but those workers handle an additional 690 calls for service on an average day, Sheriff Brad Steube told commissioners. But the eight additional deputies falls far short of Steube’s request for 37.

Doing more with less exacts a heavy toll, research shows, on a pace that cannot last forever. “We’ve been running so lean for so long that it’s starting to hurt companies profitability-wise, morale-wise, culture-wise,” said Ron Rael, CPA, CGMA, founder of the High Road Institute leadership consulting firm and an author whose published works include “The Traits of Today’s CFO: A Handbook for Excelling in an Evolving Role. “And, more importantly, employees are starting to get burned out,” he states.

Count public employees among those over stressed workers. Job stress is compounded by low pay compared with nearby county government jobs. This so-called “compression” issue, caused by years of minor if any pay increases, aggravates morale, too. The majority of county employee salaries fall below grade midpoints, a 2015 consultant’s study found. Hunzeker’s budget proposal addresses some of that with a $500,000 allocation, but that study put the cost of solving compression at about $2.2 million. At least, this new recommendation is a start.

Commissioners have heard about this confounding issue for years but refuse to address the matter in any meaningful way. County government continues to lose employees to other jobs and governments, some the best and brightest. Commissioners should tackle this problem, too, but appear handcuffed by politics. Can Manatee County continue to operate on the cheap? The best public servants are not the lowest paid. That expectation is a political one, not a realistic one.

Most ominous, though, is Hunzeker’s conclusion on voter approval of a pending half-cent sales tax increase to pay for county infrastructure, which includes public safety: “I think if the public tells us they don’t want an additional revenue, then you (commissioners) are back to cutting or raising taxes but you can’t raise property taxes enough to fund the problem you have in your capital budget.”

Commissioners are set to vote on placing the sales tax referendum on the November ballot on Tuesday. Even a 9 percent growth in property values and an estimated additional $15 million in revenue over the 2015-2016 budget won’t solve the county’s looming budget deficit, expected to hit in 2018.

Vote for a better future come November.