Manatee County Commissioner George Kruse, who along with Commissioners James Satcher and Kevin Van Ostenbridge was in his first full year in office, said 2021 was as much about setting the groundwork going forward than it was about directly accomplishing things.
Setting groundwork took up a lot of time with a change in the county administrator, an ongoing battle with the COVID-19 pandemic, and animosity between commissioners during public meetings.
Kruse said the main focus during 2022 will be accomplishing things.
“We obviously had a number of bigger items that came up, like COVID and Piney Point,” Kruse said. “I'm not going to say (we were) sidetracked, because those are incredibly important things we had to deal with. But they were kind of the focal point. What we did accomplish was starting to set the stage and what the mentality of the board is, and what our views in terms of priorities are. Hopefully in 2022, we'll start moving those items forward and not just be talking about them. Because in government, it seems like there's a lot of talking about things and very little action, accomplishing things.”
Due to continued population growth, infrastructure – namely roads – once again ranked at the top of the priority list for commissioners.
Commissioner Venessa Baugh said that doesn’t mean building new roads, but it’s important to make sure the county’s existing roads are operating at full capacity.
“We're still in the process of trying to get everything moving,” said Baugh, who noted that her top priority is getting road projects moving forward.
Satcher said that focusing on roads and connectivity will improve the quality of life for Manatee County residents.
“We need to make it so people can get where they need to go and not waste their time away from their families and homes while sitting in traffic,” he said.
Commissioner Carol Whitmore stressed patience as the county continues to work on infrastructure.
“There's a lot of construction going on, but the end game will be worth it,” she said. “It's just going to take a little patience in the next couple of years to move around Manatee County as we catch up with all the growth.”
Parks and environmental issues will be a hot topic for commissioners. Kruse said he wants to see an emphasis on building more parks in East County that would supplement those in existence. He also wants to see a trail system in place that would link up with the Legacy Trail in Sarasota County that will eventually link to Collier County and the Hillsborough County Trail system that goes all the way into Pasco County to the north.
“We've got the plans and we've got the land," Kruse said. "We just need the wherewithal to start putting the funds into getting it built. I think that's a major amenity for East County. And that should, in my mind, be at the forefront of our park system because it creates outdoor opportunities for people to do things out east.”
Expanding the reach of parks is also important to Satcher, who represents northeast Manatee County and will now take over the rural sections of East County after redistricting. He said plans have already begun for a county park in Parrish.
“This area has a lot of families, and we are working to get them the park facilities that they need so they can have a place to play baseball, to play soccer and to enjoy our beautiful county and state,” Satcher said.
One of Baugh’s focuses will be on Premier Park in Lakewood Ranch. Manatee County officially broke ground on the East County library on the site Dec. 15 and plans call for an aquatic center, pickleball courts, baseball fields and more to be built on the site over the next few years.
“I'm looking forward to hiring someone to do the design and to start that new phase with the aquatic center,” she said. “We want to watch that library being built and make sure that there's nothing we need to change or anything else we need to do.”
Kruse said affordable housing, foster care, and ease of internet access for county residents are also issues the county needs to tackle going forward. Manatee County passed an accessory dwelling last year to create more affordable housing, but more work needs to be done.
“We made some good headway last year, but it's barely going to move the needle,” Kruse said. “We need to start putting this on steroids.”
In 2021, the Manatee County Commission became known for constant bickering.
Kruse said some of that stems from the state’s Sunshine Law, which regulates interaction between commissioners. Publicly advertised meetings are the only place where all members of the board are allowed to speak together on any particular issue.
“It almost makes it impossible for people to build a relationship and rapport with each other outside of the boardroom,” he said. “That's always going to be a problem. It's not like we can all be like, let's all go sit in this conference room and have lunch together. And, you know, hug it out. The only times you see us meaningfully talking to each other is up on that dais.”
Whitmore said healthy debates on the dais are fine, but anything else crosses a line.
“A lot of the other stuff to me is nonsense, and it needs to stop,” she said. “And I think it's going to. I think everybody has gotten tired of it and they will hopefully adhere to our ACE philosophy in Manatee County. That's accountability, civility and ethics. We demand that of our employees, so we should demand that from all of us, whereas we set the tone on how the county is moving forward.”
Sacther said the board appears to be settling in after a year of working together. That gives him a shot of confidence heading into the new year.
“I have seen commissioners make some good decisions,” he said. “There were things that had been put aside and avoided for even decades that this group of commissioners addressed head on. I think we're looking at a good 2022.”