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Manatee County has some explaining to do in terms of hefty reserves

Side of Ranch: Jay Heater

Christine Johnson, president of the Conservation Foundation of the Gulf Coast, hopes Manatee County voters understand what's involved when they vote on a referendum to create a fund to buy environmentally significant land.
Christine Johnson, president of the Conservation Foundation of the Gulf Coast, hopes Manatee County voters understand what's involved when they vote on a referendum to create a fund to buy environmentally significant land.
  • East County
  • Opinion
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You sit in the doctor's office and receive the bad news.

"You have a problem with your opponens digiti minimi."

Oh for gosh sakes, why me? That's got to be bad.

Hopefully, your doctor explains he is talking about a small muscle that controls your pinky, and that you might have to put that gold pinky ring in the drawer for a while.


If he doesn't ... well ... he's ignoring an important part of his job.

Making sure your patients understand the diagnosis is an important task. If you are a mechanic about to do a $1,200 repair, you should be able to explain to your customers why they need to spend three hours getting to an $8 gasket. And if you are a politician, you had better be able to explain to taxpayers why you need to hold $576 million of their money in reserve.

That last one is going to be important as we head toward the primary and general elections. Manatee County has built excellent credit ratings, partially by hoarding reserve funds.

Chartered Financial Analyst Mike Meehan was in my office last week, explaining to me why he thinks our local government is far overstepping its bounds by keeping too much of our money on reserve.

Armed with comprehensive annual financial reports from 50 Florida counties, Meehan talked about appropriations, capital outlays, ad valorem levies and net positions while constantly checking my face to see if my eyes had rolled back into my head.

 At one point he told me of his previous encounters with journalists, who weren't too sharp when it came to accounting.

Sorry, but that's not a big surprise.

Then again, I don't know that most taxpayers have extensive accounting experience either.

I guess it's time to explain what the opponens digiti minimi really does.

Meehan is not a politician, but he still has an agenda, and it might, indeed, be right on the mark. He believes Manatee County residents are overtaxed for no good reason. He accumulates gobs of financial information and compares it to other counties, then goes to county commissioners with the results.

He took his case to commissioners again last week and found he is starting to get some backing.

But, theoretically, commissioners deal with financial statements much more than the average taxpayer, so their eyes have yet to roll back in their heads.

What's evident is Manatee County residents need to ask a lot of questions about reserves as we head into the elections. And when they ask questions, our elected officials and county administrators had better be very clear with their explanations.

Manatee County Commissioners voted 6-0 July 28 to put a referendum on the ballot asking the taxpayers to raise their property tax .15 mill for 20 years to create a fund dedicated to the purchase of land valuable for protecting drinking water sources, preserving fish and wildlife habitat, preventing stormwater runoff pollution and providing parks. The measure also would allow for Manatee County to issue general obligation bonds not exceeding $50 million toward land acquisition.

The concept makes perfect sense to me as growth gobbles up Manatee County's land at unfathomable rates. I would be out front of this parade blowing the trumpet.

But then I stare down at my pinky and think about my opponens digiti minimi. If we have $576 million in unrestricted cash, why don't we have our commissioners reappropriate $50 million and create this land trust?

We can take this further, too. If it's going to take 10 years to build Premier because it will take that long to pull $25 million from impact fees and bed taxes, how about reappropriating $25 million from our reserves, and then paying back that account out of future bed taxes and impact fees?

Certainly, you can keep spending money on various projects until you spend all your reserves, and that isn't such a good thing.

The point is, though, we need our elected officials and administrators to be very clear about our future path, and it needs to be done before November when our chance to create a land trust goes down because no one can understand why we have stashed half a billion dollars.

That's enough to make my pinky quiver.






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