EAST COUNTY — It might take a simple smile to address complex issues such as economic growth, diversifying the tax base and distributing the budget in a county starving for new revenues.
That strategy may sound overly simplistic and naive, but when the Manatee County Board of County Commissioners convenes again in January, new board members, elected to bring a cooperation and energy, will face citizens who want growth but resist tax increases to get it, and a public-safety sector hungry for more help from the local government.
New board Chairman Larry Bustle says the demeanor brought by Vanessa Baugh, the District 5 representative, and Betsy Benac, a District 7 commissioner, both elected in November, gives the board the ability to combat difficult challenges ahead.
“There’s a new aura on the dais,” Bustle says. “Now it’s about how we work together and how we solve problems.”
Baugh, a business owner who religiously attended board meetings the last two years as a spectator, says Manatee County deserves a harmonious board set on solving problems, not earning political points.
“In that past there was a lot of contention and squabbling,” Baugh says. “Now, the board has a lot of respect for each other. We won’t always agree. But the difference you’re seeing is a board that wants to make things better. That’s our job. There’s a lot of smiling on the dais.”
Added Benac, a veteran local businesswoman and planner: “No one is trying to pull a gotcha.”
When the leaders sit down to make decisions in 2013, here are some challenges they will face.
How to grow
In January, the board will meet with County Administrator Ed Hunzeker to discuss a study intended to create a new vision for Manatee County.
The study, fittingly titled “How will we grow?” breaks down into three alternatives: Maintain the status quo; redevelop areas for further construction; and create activity centers across the county intended to serve as incentive bases for businesses to develop there.
“We can either do the same things we have been doing, encourage infill and avoid sprawl, or provide incentives for people to build here,” says Bustle, a five-year board member and lifelong Manatee County resident. “The first option is not viable. I like a combination of the second two. The centers will just make it easier for businesses to set up here.”
For the third option, activity centers would be built in Lakewood Ranch, Port Manatee, Parrish and by South Tamiami Trail.
Each would be tailored to its location but have similarities.
Bustle says the board will focus on tax abatement, sparing qualified businesses from property taxes for a period of time, similar to how the county attracted Feld Entertainment, which produces Disney on Ice, and Air Products, a manufacturer of liquid natural gas that is set to build a plant in Port Manatee.
“Incentives have been successful since we started with them four years ago,” Bustle says. “Close to 4,000 jobs have been created or retained. Some businesses thought about going out of business, but through incentives we have been able to keep them.”
Besides cash incentives, Bustle referenced expedited zoning and building permit approvals as ways the county can attract businesses.
Benac, mirroring a plan discussed by Rex Jensen, CEO for Lakewood Ranch developer Schroeder-Manatee Ranch, in November, says the county needs to avoid low density, spread out building.
No matter the method, Benac says an economy showing signs of recovery and increases in property values combine to make the year ahead a prime time for builders.
“We have to have a different pattern of growth that is more dense and allows people to live closer to where they work,” Benac says. “We have to be more efficient, especially with fuel prices as high as they are.”
She calls Manatee Technical Institute and its new East County location a potential job attractor, with its ability to train employees with skills fit to work for targeted companies.
Baugh says it’s important to give incentives only after a company earns them; if a company promises to hire 70 people at a certain salary, the county should wait to offer tax savings until that goal is met.
“We can’t waste taxpayer money, and we have to be smart how offer incentives,” Baugh says. “I believe Manatee County has operated the right way in the past and will continue to. We have to be slow and careful how we do this.”
Commissioners can also promote Lakewood Ranch’s rapidly growing sports industry.
SMR officials say, through national and international events it hosts, the one-and-a-half-year-old Premier Sports Complex has brought more than 100,000 visitors to Manatee-Sarasota this year, generating $65 million in revenue.
Visitors who come here for those events also spend money on local hospitality, food and even jewelry, making the sports business more important, says Baugh.
“We can help brand the region as an amateur sports haven,” Bustle says. “It’s one of the biggest growth areas we have. We have to grow for us to stay alive.”
How to pay
On the heels of a discussion about growth will be another early January workshop about how to pay for it.
Subjected to the whims of property values and their effect on taxes, Manatee County has dug into its reserve account, called the stabilization fund, for the last five years, Benac says.
“You can’t do that forever,” Benac says. “We have to balance the budget. Not everyone relies on property taxes like we do.”
In a November presentation to the Lakewood Ranch Business Alliance, Hunzeker presented an alternative revenue plan.
Hunzeker suggests implementing user fees for libraries and parks, a half-cent sales tax, stormwater fees, utility franchise fees and taxing tourists.
Bustle says Hunzeker has also discussed raising the rate for tolls.
As the Manatee County Sheriff’s office pines for more money and county Emergency Medical Services (EMS) awaits the vote of a push to unionize, Baugh hopes commissioners resist the temptation to increase taxes.
“I hope we can come up with other ways to increase revenues without raising taxes,” Baugh says. “We can’t take this out on the citizens who live here.”
Any tax increase would have to come with a viable reason, Bustle says.
“This can’t just be about money,” Bustle says. “If it helps with law enforcement and first responder type compensation, then maybe it is something to consider.”
Sheriff’s office pay and EMS morale
In September, before Baugh and Benac came on board, the commission gave the sheriff’s office $3.2 million to address its budget concerns.
Armed with a study that he says proves his point, Manatee County Sheriff W. Brad Steube says it isn’t enough.
“This year, we went into the right direction by getting the $3.2 million, but it still isn’t enough and still doesn’t stop my problem of being the lowest-paid law-enforcement agency in this area,” Steube says.
Steube hopes to meet with commissioners in January to reveal the findings of the study, carried out by various groups over four months, and to inform the leaders how the $3.2 million has been dispersed.
At the board’s budget adoption hearing in September, Steube told commissioners he was losing
experienced deputies to higher-paying agencies. He also noted longtime employees were making nearly the same amount as newer recruits, causing gross salary compression issues.
Steube says the new study shows his agency as having the lowest starting salary out of 14 area sheriff’s offices; to get into the middle of that pack would take $5.5 million.
With new commissioners on board, Steube is hopeful, but guarded.
“I can’t expect anything,” Steube says.
Steube says he has made suggestions, such as pushing the millage rate back to the rollback rate and increasing the rate, to generate revenue. During the September budget meeting, commissioners adopted the same millage rate as last year — 6.2993.
“I’ve made all suggestions I can make,” Steube says. “Hopefully this County Commission will realize there is a critical need for the sheriff’s office.”
Commissioners didn’t have much to say about Steube’s comments.
Baugh acknowledged the importance of the issue, but says she hasn’t heard about the study Steube referenced.
Benac calls pay cuts a “part of life” and says she handed out plenty during her time in the private sector. She notes government jobs offer more generous benefits than the business world.
“It’s about more than just pay,” Benac says. “This is not a unique situation. Is everybody entitled to a raise and is everybody the same? Of course not. The sheriff advocates strongly for his employees and I look forward to working with him.”
The entire county government shares a need for appreciation, Benac says.
“A lot of people have not felt appreciated having gone without raises for awhile,” Benac says. “It starts to take a toll. People don’t realize we do appreciate what they do.”
Commissioners say little about similar concerns of county EMS employees, who are working with the International Association of EMTs and Paramedics to unionize.Manatee County EMTs and paramedics overwhelmingly voted in favor of union representation Dec. 19.
At a workshop Dec. 5, paramedics and emergency medical technicians had complained about employee morale, linking it to high staff turnover and to disparities in how policies are enforced. One employee said 61% of EMS employees have less than five years’ experience.
Bustle says he cares most about the product emergency workers deliver.
“(Unionizing) is something they have to decide,” Bustle says. “All I know is I am willing to work with them to solve the problem. We want the workplace to be a carrying place for people so moral is high and the product is good.”
Local governments all across the nation and state must begin to grapple with the Affordable Care Act, which takes effect in January 2014.
Gov. Rick Scott’s administration will not create a health-insurance exchange under the law, leaving the responsibility to the federal government, the state announced Dec. 14.
Bustle says a $40 million funding source for indigent health care — most of which came from the sale of Manatee Memorial Hospital, then called Manatee Veterans Memorial Hospital, to a private business — will soon dry up. He says it will be depleted by 2015.
As with all of the issues in the year ahead, commissioners believe newfound cooperation, communication and accountability will set the course for decisions made.
“We want to reach out to the community so they come forward and share ideas to,” Benac says. “We need all folks to work together and all be a part of the conversation.”
Contact Josh Siegel at [email protected].
What new commissioners Betsy Benac and Vanessa Baugh have learned so far and how they plan use those lessons to make 2013 productive:
1. “You get to work almost immediately and you learn a lot quickly. Being an observer for almost two years made the transition easier. You meet different people and learn how different departments work. The concerns of the people are heavy on my heart.”
2. “It’s a humbling experience. I learned you need to be your own person up there to represent the people. You can’t let people sway you. You have to stand on two feet. If you don’t, shame on you.”
1. “You forget how many people are involved in county government. The county has a lot of employees, many who have felt unappreciated for a while. It’s about understanding those needs and addressing them.”