OUR VIEW: Budget woes an opportunity

 

OUR VIEW: Budget woes an opportunity

 

Date: May 4, 2011
by: The Observer Staff

 
 

Like every other county and municipality in Florida, Manatee County is facing yet another round of budget cuts. But times of pain and crisis are always times of opportunity — with just a little vision.

So while this is the fifth consecutive year of expected reductions because of declining revenues, it is also a crystalizing chance for the Manatee County Commission to think big, to think beyond just surviving another year of trying to make as few people as possible unhappy.

This is a moment to decide what size Manatee County government needs to be to provide the best hope for future generations — not simply how commissioners can placate the myriad special interest groups and balance difficult decisions while still getting re-elected.

County Administrator Ed Hunzeker gets this, to some degree. He recently told the East Manatee Republican Club that the county needs to decide if it is going to be ready to ride the economic recovery or be left at the curb. “Where do we want to be?” he rightly asked.

It’s not just about making books balance, but about creating a vision.

This choice is in the hands of the County Commission, with plenty of guidance from Hunzeker, who points out that the economy already is showing signs of recovery.

But it is evident the recovery is being dragged down badly by the profligate spending at the federal level during the past several years and the uncertainly introduced by the Federal Reserve’s unprecedented monetary actions. We should at this point be riding a roaring recovery and sharply falling unemployment.

Bad politics and bad policies have stymied that.

Manatee County cannot stand out from the pack by offering incentives to some businesses and not others. Hunzeker does not get this one and told the group that the county has to be in the game. But that makes it just run of the pack. And never forget that what is given to some by government must be taken from others. That is immutable.

However, Manatee County can yet stand out from the rest if it chooses options that limit the carrying costs of government, that continues to relax burdensome regulations on businesses and that generates an overall — non-targeted — atmosphere where all businesses can thrive.

It has started down this road already, particularly with the steps taken under Building Department Director John Barnott to streamline the county’s interactions with the business community and turn it into as much of an asset for economic growth as possible. Hunzeker and the County Commission have backed these changes, so there is a great deal of hope. Perceptions are changing because reality is changing on this front.

In addition, the county socked away a substantial rainy day reserve that still has nearly $50 million. But that fund is dwindling.

There is much more that should be done.

County officials expect property-tax revenue falling by about $8 million for the 2012 fiscal year as a result of the continuing slide in real estate values. That is going to mean a fifth year of budget cuts for fiscal 2011-2012.

As painful as that can be, there is a large detail to keep in mind: Even with the sharp downturn in property-tax revenue in the past four years, Manatee County property values are still a whopping 52% more in 2010 than they were in 2002 and even slightly higher than values as recently as 2005.

The problem is the same problem endemic to government without a strong guiding philosophy beyond being all things to all people — it grew in size just as fast as revenues grew. Everyone else did it, too. But it was a mistake. It will be a mistake to do it when the economy returns, also.

Think big. Get outside the box of government as everyone’s everything and let the residents and their businesses thrive.

+ Hyperbolic protests
About 50 teachers, members of the Manatee Education Association, were on some street corners last week protesting planned education cuts by the Legislature and Gov. Rick Scott.

Of course, it was just a few teachers. But it sure doesn’t leave a good impression for students who need to learn how to roll with life’s challenges without whining.

What is clear from the state budget now is that almost nothing is spared the budget knife. Why teachers think their paychecks are sacrosanct is not clear.

The placards only gave such deep insights as “Impeach Scott” and “Don’t hurt our children.” Oy!

+ Oil profiteer: Uncle Sam
The media and certain politician are indignant over Exxon’s $11 billion profit in the first quarter given the high cost of gasoline at the pump. But factual context is a wonderfully helpful device to defuse politics playing to emotions.

First, less than 3% of Exxon’s profits come from gasoline and diesel fuel. So they are not getting rich off poor Americans paying $3.90 at the pump.

Second, that profit comes on earnings of about 2 cents per gallon. In comparison, federal, state and local taxes on a gallon of gas is about 53 cents in Florida. And then Exxon pays taxes on its profits, also.

And by way of reminder, Exxon is the one providing us all with the convenience of pulling in, filling up and pulling out. Government is taking 25 times more than Exxon per gallon. Outrage anyone?

Remember these facts when you hear President Obama and others rip into Big Oil’s profits.

Manatee county budget schedule
June 1: County administrator will present the recommended budget to the County Commission.
June 6: County Commission will hold its first review of the proposed budget.
June 9: The Capital Improvement Plan will be presented to the County Commission.
June 16: First public hearing before the County Commission to take comments on the budget.
July 1: Manatee County Property Appraiser certifies the taxable value of county property. Until this point, the county budget is based on estimates.
July 28: By this date the County Commission must set a tentative minimum millage rate for property owners and provide to the property appraiser.
August: The property appraiser mails the Truth in Millage statements (known as TRIM notices) to property owners, providing them with the proposed taxes on their homes and properties.
September: The first public hearing on the budget that includes the property tax information from the TRIM notices. A second public hearing must be held in September before the final budget and tax rates are approved late in the month.

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