Back in session with a busy period just starting, Manatee County commissioners explain their top priorities as budget season heats up.
Roadways and trails and parks, oh my!
As of July 27, the Manatee County Commission is back in session following a recess of nearly six weeks. Commissioners said they will have a jam-packed series of meetings and decisions in the coming months, especially as they work to finalize next year’s budget and a new five-year capital improvement plan before the 2022 fiscal year starts Oct. 1.
Choices will be made and priorities decided. As has been the case for months, commissioners said infrastructure — especially roads and sidewalks — are the most pressing need in Manatee County.
Commissioner Vanessa Baugh said the extension of Lena Road and widening of Upper Manatee River Road and Lorraine Road between State Roads 70 and 64 were two of the most important projects. Commissioner Carol Whitmore also listed the Lorraine Road project as one of the county’s biggest immediate needs.
Whitmore said the most critical needs for infrastructure are in northern Manatee County, which is mostly Commissioner James Satcher’s district. Satcher said there has been some progress made on roads and sidewalks in his community, but his top priority is ensuring further improvement on the widening and reconstruction of Moccasin Wallow Road.
“We do have a lot of money headed to it, but I like results,” Satcher said. “I know that the people in my district want to see results. I don't think anyone has ever committed the kind of resources that we are right now to make this place where we have adequate roads and sidewalks for our citizens.”
Baugh said one way to help clear up traffic, especially near the beaches, would be the creation of a water taxi service. If created, she said the system could also generate some tourism revenue for the county.
Whitmore said the county needs to quickly figure out a new location for its next landfill. The current one, located on Lena Road, will need to close in about two decades, if not sooner. Whitmore said permitting for a new landfill could take 10 to 15 years.
Commissioner George Kruse said he would also like to expedite some infrastructure projects, but as an at-large commissioner, he gets the opportunity to focus on the big picture rather than district-specific projects.
“We've pushed this down the road and delayed this so many years, that we don't have the luxury of delaying it a few weeks or a few months,” Kruse said. “This needs to be actively getting worked on right now.”
Specifically, he has been focused on ensuring the county’s financial commitments are being put to good use. For example, the commission voted in April to take out a $40 million line of credit in order to more quickly move the county’s most important road projects into the design phase. Kruse said he plans to speak with the county’s Financial Management Department on a regular basis to ask if the county is actively moving toward the design stage, or at least soliciting its bids, for its highest-priority projects.
“This design work could take 12 to 18 months,” Kruse said. “Stuff like Lorraine and Upper Manatee. People are now expecting shovels in the ground.”
Kruse said he also wants the county to figure out what it will do with the $78.2 million it receives from the federal government’s American Rescue Plan, which was passed in March to help the economy recover from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
He would like to see much of the money used to install higher-quality internet service across Manatee County, which he said is a time-sensitive issue because many other communities will be looking to do the same thing, but there are a limited number of companies that can install it.
“By the end of this year, I'm hoping that we've got a contract and a plan in place and the survey done to say, ‘OK, here's who doesn't have fiber optic and broadband today. Here's how we're going to get it to them. Here are some options for bigger wifi hotspots,’” Kruse said. “I'd love to see full-on hotspots all the way up and down the Riverwalk in Bradenton and out at Premier and over at G.T. Bray, just pure wifi hotspots. I’d like to see a fully wired-up, new, next-generation type of community, because that's going to help attract businesses.”
Parks were another one of Baugh’s top priorities. She said older areas of Manatee County have plenty of parks, but the northern and eastern parts of the county could use more amenities, such as pickleball courts and skate parks. Baugh said building an aquatic center as part of the expansion around Premier Sports Campus should take place as soon as possible.
“We don’t have a pool for our kids to be able to use for swim practice, for swim meets,” Baugh said.
Another item she would like to see quickly move forward as part of the Premier expansion is Lakewood Ranch’s library. She said people use libraries today for internet access as much as anything, and building one at Premier would benefit people in the eastern stretches of the county, such as Myakka City.
Satcher also listed parks as one of his top three priorities. He would like to see one built between North River Ranch and Parrish and another one near Rye River Road.
“We want to make it where people can have somewhere to go to enjoy this beautiful county and the environment and play and enjoy where they're at,” Satcher said.
Kruse would like to see the county take a look at moving forward on a countywide trail system, a project that Parks and Natural Resources Director Charlie Hunsicker has been working on for 25 years. Kruse said the only trails in the county that aren’t located within a preserve are the ones built in Lakewood Ranch by Schroeder-Manatee Ranch.
Baugh and Whitmore said they also wanted to focus on the issue of red tide. Baugh said the only things the county can do at this point are keep the beaches clean and try to round up dead fish before they reach the shore. Whitmore said another reason to remove dead fish as soon as possible is to prevent them from sinking to the bottom of the ocean, decaying and killing sea grass, which can disrupt the ecosystem.
With COVID-19 once again rising in Manatee County thanks in part to the more infectious delta variant, Whitmore said keeping citizens safe from the virus is one of her top priorities. She said people are capable of making their own decisions, but she at least wants the county to work on making sure everyone has as much information as possible.
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