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East County Wednesday, Jun. 8, 2011 6 years ago

OUR VIEW: Sheriff's request questionable


Manatee County Commissioners have their hands full again creating a balanced budget in the fifth year of declining revenues from falling property values and a struggling economy.

Some of this is their own doing by allowing county government to bloat trying to meet everyone’s needs and wants while providing such generous employee benefits packages not seen in the private sector. Part, of course, is because of their control as the county operates in a national and global economy and there was little any single county could do to stem the housing collapse.

But the commissioners’ job has been made much harder by Sheriff Brad Steube’s request for a 4.4% bump in spending to give a 3% raise to all of his employees and to hire another 10 deputies and 10 corrections officers.

Here is the background. The Manatee County Property Appraiser just released estimates that the county taxable property value fell another $1.2 billion this past year, meaning a revenue gap from the current budget of about $16 million. Tax increases are not an option, so Manatee County Administrator Ed Hunzeker is looking at a combination of spending cuts and drawing down reserves.

This comes after the county has cut about $130 million since 2007, and new county projections show that continuing property valuation declines will mean the county will be cutting more again in 2013.

Some of Hunzeker’s proposed cuts include:
• Reducing the central library weekly hours from 56 to 48 to cut three staff positions.
• Eliminating 54 county positions largely due to decreased demand for services.
• Privatizing the operations at the two county-run golf courses.
• Funding the Longboat Key trolley service at $200,000 because of an agreement with the town of Longboat Key and Sarasota County. (This is a luxury none of the three municipalities can afford.)

Into this context comes Steube’s request for a sizable increase in spending. Now, we are not at all opposed to law enforcement getting better pay while perhaps bureaucrats whose primary function is to bury progress under an avalanche of paperwork get less. The thin blue and green lines that maintain civilization at the edges are treasured.

But we question whether this is the time for such a spending move. None of the other county employees will be getting a 3% raise and all have been on the same salary for the past four years. Hunzeker is proposing a one-time $1,000 bonus for all employees. It is designed to show appreciation, help with the state-required payments into the retirement system and does so without increasing the base salary.

County employees overall are budgeted at the same pay for the fifth straight year. Further, the Sheriff’s Office got 16 new positions in 2011 and an additional $1.6 million while the rest of county government shrank.

Steube is planning to cut five school resource officers, which we said previously seems like a wise restructuring of priorities. Surely he can find more such opportunities.

When Hunzeker proposed his budget last week, it included a $500,000 cut to the sheriff’s budget. We are aware that there is some positioning that goes on between county staff and constitutional officers such as the Sheriff, Clerk of Court, Property Appraiser, Supervisor of Elections and Tax Collector. And this could be that.

But Steube is willing to play hardball to get his employees more money this year.

When Hunzeker gave his budget proposal to the County Commission, the only comment that Steube had was to ask that the June 16 budget workshop that includes his department be televised and be held in the commission chambers to accommodate the large number of people that would be attending.

Obviously, Steube intends to pack the room with supporters, the most of whom are likely to be sheriff employees who stand to financially benefit from the sheriff’s proposal. Apparently, he has learned from watching the tactics teacher unions employ using their large number of employees to apply pressure to elected officials and playing  on the public’s emotions.

The county commission has the annual balancing act here. They may decide that tipping the financial scale toward law enforcement is the right choice. But we hope they decide it from a rational, good policy perspective and not based on how many people show up at a meeting with their arms folded angrily.

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