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East County Wednesday, Mar. 6, 2019 8 months ago

Commissioners form a $7 million shopping list in Manatee County

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Failed Homestead Exemption increase leads to $7 million in unexpected funds for county.
by: Pam Eubanks Senior Editor

Manatee County District 5 Commissioner Vanessa Baugh hopes the public’s decision to forfeit an increase in the state homestead tax exemption could have a positive impact on East County residents.

She hopes the county will expedite plans to extend Lena Road, which currently dead-ends both from State Road 64 south and from State Road 70 north. There is a roughly one-mile stretch of undeveloped land between those endpoints.

“Lena Road is probably more important today than it’s ever been,” Baugh said, noting it provides a much-needed north-south roadway to complement Interstate 75.

At least a portion of the project may be viable now that Manatee County has an extra $7 million available for one-time or other expenses in the 2019-2020 fiscal year budget.

Manatee County officials prepared for Amendment 1, which would have increased Florida’s Homestead Exemption by

$25,000, to pass in November 2018 and subsequently created a three-year plan to address a projected funding shortfall in 2020, when the exemption was to take effect. As property tax revenue rose, the county set aside the gains in revenue to use for one-time costs. The idea was that the county would not be dependent upon those revenues for reoccurring expenses when the homestead exemption took effect.

Baugh now must convince her fellow board members the project is a high enough priority to fund it. She said if even some of the $7 million could get allocated toward design of the project it would help start a years-long process for designing and constructing the roadway. Manatee County also must acquire land to build the roadway.

The Lena Road extension is not currently in the county’s five-year work program.

Manatee County commissioners held a workshop Feb. 28 to talk about their budget priorities for the next fiscal year, 2019-2020, and possible “special projects” they could fund with the $7 million they now will be able to spend. Those ideas included expanding the Braden River Library, expanding the Handy Bus program, which transports individuals with disabilities, addressing rising costs for employee health care and renovating the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office District 2 office.

Other potential board priorities include long-range transportation planning, improving roadway conditions and  dealing with flooding in neighborhoods.

The county’s new interim county administrator, Cheri Coryea, said she would use the information and feedback of commissioners when formulating her recommended budget, expected to be made public May 28. The formal budget process begins in June and concludes in the fall.

“It’s a big shopping list,” Board Chairman Stephen Jonsson said of the list of priorities. “For me, every one of them is significant. Trying to prioritize the priorities is not going to be easy.”

Board members said the county needs to think outside the box to save money, address ongoing issues, such as how to pay for road improvements, and to find more funding solutions. For example, should the county have paid parking at its public beaches? Does it need to consider having less than 20% in reserves? What about bonding more projects?

At-large Commissioner Betsy Benac said she wants public input on how the $7 million is to be used.

“(Voters have) given us a lot of trust and we need to ask them, ‘What do you see this community needs?’” Benac said.

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