EAST COUNTY — Two months after voters rejected a half-percent sales-tax increase to fund indigent health care, Manatee County Administrator Ed Hunzeker communicated the business-as-usual message he tried so hard to avoid in May.
There would not be a broader revenue base, less reliant on property taxes, as Hunzeker had once recommended for the county. And, there would not be a lower millage rate.
At a Manatee County Board of County Commissioners meeting Aug. 1, Hunzeker revealed a revised $520 million budget that keeps property rates the same as today — at 6.2933 mills for property owners in incorporated areas and 6.9102 mills for unincorporated property owners.
Although the rates remain constant, homeowners will pay more in property taxes due to a countywide average 4% increase in property values.
The increased property values will give the county an additional $1.2 million in revenue, which Hunzeker recommended to keep in general-fund reserves.
“We made an effort to change the way we pay for government,” said Jim Seuffert, Manatee County’s director of financial management. “But, after we heard and saw what the people wanted, and seeing property values rise higher than expected, we decided to go back to the traditional way of establishing the tax rate.”
But, business did change — just not in the way Hunzeker expected.
In a surprise move and in a decision that went against Hunzeker’s recommendation, commissioners unanimously voted to give the $1.2 million to Manatee County Sheriff Brad Steube to hire more personnel.
Steube had previously asked for money, which 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 did not provide any money for that request.
Commissioners told Steube to use the $1.2 million at his discretion.
Steube said he would use it to hire four deputies to work in the jail, where there is one less correctional deputy than 1995, at which time the inmate population was significantly lower. He also would hire another eight to nine patrol deputies.
“I appreciate you helping me chipping away at the problem I have,” Steube told commissioners. “This is a good start, and I am grateful for it. Hopefully, we follow it up in future years.”
The sheriff will also receive about $500,000 in capital costs, such as cars and other equipment, related to the new hires.
Steube said it would be a year before the new deputies man the streets, because the sheriff’s office first must recruit with a job fair and then train the hires.
The new budget keeps a 4% boost in salaries for county employees, including sheriff’s office employees. Steube has asked for pay increases for deputies to make pay more competitive with neighboring agencies, among other reasons.
Hunzeker’s original budget proposal featured lower property tax rates.
The new budget removes earlier proposals to implement an electric franchise fee on utilities and to transfer sheriff road-patrol costs to residents in unincorporated areas.
Hunzeker had said money raised from a potential sales-tax increase would provide enough revenue for property tax rates to be lowered 25% for incorporated residents and 13% for individuals who live in unincorporated areas.
Hunzeker said he did not have the revenue to do that after the measure failed a public referendum.
The expenditure side of Hunzeker’s new budget stays virtually the same as his previous recommendation.
Manatee County will again operate at a deficit and dip into reserves next fiscal year.
While balancing the need to keep the county safe and functioning while maintaining its solvency, commissioners hope business changes.
“We have to be cautious as we slowly grow,” Commissioner Betsy Benac said. “By doing this (giving money to the sheriff’s office), we are spending money this year that may not be there next year. I like having a little bit more money in reserves, but we have to do this.”
From here, two more public hearings will be held on the budget — one Sept. 10 and another Sept. 19.
Contact Josh Siegel at firstname.lastname@example.org.
BY THE NUMBERS
6.2933 — In mills, tax rate set for property owners in incorporated areas of Manatee County.
6.9102 — In mills, tax rate set for property owners in unincorporated areas of Manatee County
4 — Average percent increase seen in home values
1.2 million — In dollars, additional amount Manatee County expects to generate in revenue from property taxes.
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