Although Manatee County Commissioners selected Fiscal Year 2016 budget priorities in April for County Administrator Ed Hunzeker to investigate, some raised questions about those goals at yesterday’s budget workshop.
At their April 14 meeting, the commissioners directed administration to nominate healthcare, employee compensation, animal services and a public radio safety system as the county’s top priorities.
Hunzeker came back with a recommendation to earmark around $6 million in the county’s reserve fund to set aside for healthcare coverage.
“We don’t know what it’s for until the state and the federal government finish with their wrangling,” he said.
Hunzeker wants the money ready in case a settlement is reached on the healthcare debate. When the decision is reached, there will be rules, he said, adding that if the county doesn’t set aside money now, it may have to draw funds from elsewhere to match with the state’s program.
He reminded commissioners that this $6 million could be taken from the reserves without harming the board’s 20% reserve requirement—the minimum amount of money that must be left in reserves.
However, some commissioners felt that with upcoming public safety needs, taxpayers may grumble that the county would be setting aside money for healthcare.
“I understand that we need improvements to the jail — my concern is how will the public feel if we take $6 million out of the reserves and hit them with the jail instead,” said Commissioner Carol Whitmore.
There will be a one-time revenue in 2016 because of left-over funds from the 2015 fiscal year. The county plans to spend the $2.2 million on improvements to the jail, including new freezers for the inmates. However, Huzeker said the Sheriff’s Office had been waiting "patiently" for other upgrades to the jail and other services.
“They save us tons of money by growing their own food and slaughtering their own cattle,” said Whitmore. “The feed about 1,100 to 1,400 people a day, that’s what’s in the jail now. I’ve seen what their needs are.”
Hunzeker also recommended a 4% average pay increase based on the county’s pay for performance compensation program, but no across-the-board raises. The county is conducting a study, which will be finished in July before the budget is finalized, which is analyzing how Manatee stacks up against the job market competition.
However, he recommended that no new positions be added to the count’s job pool “until our county has reached a stronger recovery from the recession.”
In total, the county administrator is recommending a $550 million budget—an increase of $20 million from last year. The spike was calculated for increased ad valorem revenues and some increased services costs, Hunzeker said. The millage rate will not increase under his proposal.
The discussion turned to infrastructure when Commissioner Charles Smith expressed his frustration that some communities in the county still don’t have sidewalks, saying the county needed a more comprehensive plan for paying for infrastructure updates.
“What about the folks who built Manatee County?” he said.
“Therein lies a challenge that this county will have moving forward,” Hunzeker said. “We don’t have a dedicated source of money for… maintaining existing assets.”
Part of the proposed budget suggests using reserves to maintain some parks and playground equipment, but it can’t continue in that pattern, he said.
“How are we going to do that, looking out five to 10 years? We need to come up with a plan,” Hunzeker said.
Commissioner John Chappie reminded the rest of the board that they had already chosen the budget priorities—which did not include long term infrastructure planning.
“We gave staff a baseline… we kind of pidgeonholed ourselves,” he said.
The next public hearing on the budget is scheduled for 6 p.m. Thursday, June 11 in the Commission Chambers.