EAST COUNTY — For the last seven years when devising Manatee County’s budget, Ed Hunzeker, county administrator, has presented the same message to the Manatee County Board of County Commissioners.
“We live within our means,” Hunzeker said. “That was the pitch.”
Commissioners went along with it.
As property taxes declined in the heat of the recession, Manatee’s budget declined by $70 million over eight years. Staffing was reduced by 277 positions.
Over the past seven years, commissioners have reduced property taxes by $82 million, or 35%.
But, behind the subtle pitch is another concept. Hunzeker is hungry for a mainstream revenue model that promotes economic development by being less reliant on property taxes.
Hunzeker’s fiscal year 2014-15 budget, which he presented to commissioners May 30, fulfills three promises the county administrator has consistently made to whoever would listen this year: raises for county employees; non-reduction of services; and lower property taxes.
It also boosts employee salaries by 4%, an amount that will include the roughly $3 million in salary increases for which Manatee County Sheriff Brad Steube asked.
Overall, the county’s budget continues a stretch of non-growth in government, and Manatee will again operate at a deficit and dip into reserves, a trend that Hunzeker expects to last another four years.
But, bigger themes within the $517,782,312 budget, a budget $65,311,370 more than the current fiscal year, depend heavily on the results of a June 18 referendum with two ballot items that relate directly to Hunzeker’s vision for new government.
The public can vote on a proposed half-cent sales-tax increase to fund indigent health care and on ad valorem tax exemptions for businesses.
Hunzeker said that money raised from the sales-tax increase can provide enough revenue for property tax rates to be lowered 25% for incorporated residents and 13% for those who live in unincorporated areas, as the budget recommends.
The Manatee County Property Appraisers Office estimates that property values will increase 3% during that time.
The property tax breaks fall in line with the second ballot item, the proposed-property tax breaks for new or expanding businesses, companies commissioners would select based on their ability to create jobs.
The businesses, in Hunzeker’s world, would operate in high-density buildings and be big accounting and investment banking firms that hire more people who will contribute to the county’s revenue base.
“People who are rallying against the sales tax are talking about the break we will give these businesses,” Hunzeker said. “Uh huh. So we can attract more businesses. And, then, we can tax them. We take the burden off homeowners.”
Another look into Hunzeker’s view can be seen by the budget’s focus on capital investment.
In fact, the $65 million increase in the 2014-15 budget comes mostly from money borrowed for the capital improvement plan while interest rates are good and material costs are low.
Money from gas taxes, impact fees, utility funds and tourist tax will help pay for five-year improvement plans for 44th Avenue East, Ellenton-Gillette Road, Erie Road, Upper Manatee River Road and the Fort Hamer Bridge, as well as a beach re-nourishment plan.
Other shifts in revenue proposed in the budget include a 5.9% electric franchise fee that would generate $15.8 million, as well as the transfer of sheriff road-patrol costs to residents in unincorporated areas.
For all of the newness, the austerity message still holds true.
Hunzeker proposes no new programs in his budget. Expenditures stay the same as this fiscal year. The budget only accounts for two new employees — in utilities.
Steube also asked for money that would allow him to hire at least 20 deputies a year until his workforce reaches staffing comparable to others in the region.
Hunzeker’s budget does not provide any money for that request.
“(Sometimes) you just have to say no,” Hunzeker said.
Contact Josh Siegel at [email protected].