Correction: The previous Manatee County Commission approved the purchase of 161 acres adjacent to Lena Road Landfill 5-2, not 4-3. This article has been edited to fix the error.
Three new Manatee County Commissioners took office Nov. 17 and it took only two days for them to cause a stir in the county's political environment.
When commissioner Kevin Van Ostenbridge moved Nov. 19 to give Administrator Cheri Coryea notice of a vote to terminate her contract, it proved talk of a “new vision” for Manatee County might be getting started.
That vision, though, received a black eye when new Commissioner George Kruse pulled out of the effort to terminate Coryea, leaving fellow new commissioners James Satcher and Van Ostenbridge, along with third-term commissioner Vanessa Baugh, without enough votes to begin a search for a new administrator. It was thought the four commissioners wanted to replace key county executives to get new people who would be in line with their program.
So whether the vision, which best can be described as a conservative approach to governing and finances, has taken a significant hit remains to be seen in 2021.
All four commissioners — Van Ostenbridge, Satcher, Kruse and Baugh — continue to say they will make major changes in the way Manatee County government runs. They have talked about putting more resources into current infrastructure rather than future county buildings, they want to lower the millage, if possible, and they would like to have more control over the county's administration.
“This is a conservative push in Manatee County,” Kruse said. “You saw that based on the (57.5%) that Trump got in terms of the vote. You can see that by the fact that myself and Vanessa and James and Kevin all were elected. And I think we just need to mirror that. We're a representative government at the end of the day, and we need to represent the majority of Manatee County.”
When Van Ostenbridge raised the motion to give Coryea her notice, he said he wanted to run the government like part of the private sector, calling Coryea a “public sector person.”
“Sometimes you do need new direction if you're going to make changes that are going to help the people,” Satcher said. “I think we want to watch taxpayer money like a hawk.”
Baugh said staff members have too much power in Manatee County and that has resulted in wasteful spending. She said the previous commission passed nearly every vote when staff recommended approval, even if it didn't benefit, in her opinion, county citizens. She said that comes from projects being sent to the commissioners for a vote when the commissioners don't have adequate time to fully research the recommendation.
"All the staff had to do (for the previous Commission) was bring something forward," Baugh said. "The staff knew it had the votes. Sometimes you have people who are more conservative in their thinking than others."
While three Republicans replaced three Republicans on the board, Baugh said the new commissioners truly are fiscally conservative.
One example of flawed spending, as suggested by the three new commissioners and Baugh, is the $32.5 million purchase of the 161 acres from Musgrave Real Estate Holdings adjacent to the Lena Road Landfill for a new county operations center and a future waste transfer station. The former Commission passed the deal 5-2 about one month before the new commissioners took office.
“It's my hope that the new board starts looking at things with a different perspective,” Baugh said. “The administrator handles the county. Well, it's gotten out of hand. We need to be looking at it from the standpoint of the taxpayer, not the staff and what it wants. That's irrelevant. It's really up to the citizens of Manatee. And that's who we represent.”
The three new commissioners and Baugh said ways should be found to lower taxes, if possible. For example, Kruse said the county should dip into its reserve funds rather than implementing a stormwater tax. He also has suggested the commissioners could find ways to return reserves to the taxpayers.
Baugh said the most important issue the Commission needs to address in 2021 is infrastructure, namely roads and traffic congestion. This doesn’t necessarily mean building new roads. Many extensions, such as the one on 44th Avenue, are already underway to help in that regard. Rather, Baugh said it’s important to make sure the county’s existing roads are operating at full capacity.
“The citizens of this county could care less about building new buildings for county staff,” Baugh said. “Right now, they're just trying to get to and from their jobs. And they're having trouble doing that.”
One option could be an increased emphasis on roundabouts, according to Baugh. She acknowledged a lot of people don’t like them but also said they keep traffic flowing because they eliminate the need for traffic signals.
Baugh also wants to see the planned aquatics complex adjacent to Premier Sports Campus become a priority, especially in light of a shortage of public pool space in East County which was highlighted by a recent dispute between the county and a local swim team which lost workout times.
They three new commissioners and Baugh say there are other issues in the county that need immediate attention in 2021.
Baugh said the county must do better in providing opportunities for minorities to be able to buy homes. She said the education aspect is critical in that area.
Kruse, Baugh, Satcher and Van Ostenbridge all campaigned together and expressed similar values and goals. Kruse, for one, thinks the like-minded group will be a boon for the citizens.
“We know we're all coming in with similar ideologies,” Kruse said. “We know we can get policies instituted that the people of Manatee County want and that's why they voted for us.”