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Manatee County tops Florida's most frugal list in getting voters to polls

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The Manatee County Voter Registration building on U.S. 301 in Bradenton has no overhang coming off the front of the building.

Considering that Mike Bennett, the Supervisor of Elections, would like to have some kind of awning or protection from the weather for those who drop off ballots at the building, it is reasonable to assume he will soon be spotted with a needle and thread.

A self-proclaimed cheapskate, Bennett likes to do things to keep his office running efficiently, and yet not inflate his budget.

He said it is just the way he is built.

"The budget here is a higher focus," said Scott Farrington, a former employee in the Sarasota County Supervisor of Elections office who was hired as Bennett's assistant supervisor of elections after the 2012 election.

Farrington went on to explain that everywhere he has worked has had budget conscious people, but that Bennett takes it to another level.

"It's about how you do things more effectively," Farrington said.

In a Brevard County study of what Florida counties will spend per vote in 2024, Manatee County is projected to spend less than any county in Florida, per vote.

The study considered each department's total budget divided by the number of registered voters.

Manatee County is forecast to spend $10.92 per vote in 2024 with a budget of $3,105,987 for its 284,459 registered voters. Manatee County has a population of 429,125.

In comparison, Sarasota County spends $21.30 per vote for its 358,330 registered voters.

"It basically is about what it costs to run an election," said Bennett, a former state senator in District 21 who termed out in 2012. He also served in the Florida House from 2000-2002.

When Bennett took over as supervisor of elections in 2013, he said the department's budget had plenty of fat.

His department's budget was $2,578,327 in 2013. He said Manatee County has about 60,000 more voters in 2024 than it had in 2013.

"When you look at the study, you find we are by far cheaper (when it comes to running an election)," Bennett said. "The question is why?

He said part of it was general inefficiency when he took over almost 11 years ago.

Bennett said much of the unnecessary cost was keeping election workers on the payroll after they had served their purpose. He came up with a formula of 13 to 14 full-time workers to keep the office running and then from 700 to 1,000 short-term poll workers during elections.

"Our staff stays busy," he said. "When the election is not going on, the meat shrinks drastically. If we don't need them, we send them home."

He knew it would take a lot of effort to streamline the system, and he said he wouldn't have pursued the job in 2012 if Farrington hadn't agreed to come with him.

"I talked him into getting back into the election business," Bennett said of Farrington, who had left his job with Sarasota County.

Mike Bennett, the Manatee County supervisor of elections, says his frugal ways have led to the county spending less to record each registered vote than any other in Florida.
Photo by Jay Heater

Bennett said he turned Farrington loose in Manatee County along with his other key hires.

"The problem they had (before he arrived) was that everything was micromanaged," Bennett said. "People would never be allowed to make a decision."

Bennett said he ran the election office the way he ran his previous businesses, which included Aladdin Ward Electric, which he founded in 1985 in Bradenton. That business eventually employed 175 people. It was sold in 1998.

His other careers included working as an associate professor in the College of Business of Iowa State University (1976-77) and as an associate professor in the College of Business of Drake University (1977-79).

He said he didn't know about the inner workings of many of his businesses but he tried to hire the right operational personnel and support.

He also noted that his Manatee County staff knew nothing about the budget, and he didn't try to run their departments.

While the study compared the election departments of counties throughout Florida, Bennett said, "I'm not putting anyone else down.

"Sarasota County (for instance) has three major areas in Sarasota, Venice and North Port. We don't have that in Manatee County. Sarasota has to deal with things I don't have to deal with."

However, he does say that some counties have not made a "good, conscious effort in spending taxpayer money."

"I am not spending government money," Bennett said. "I am spending other people's money."

He talked about several other ways his office tries to save money.

Hillsborough County bought new equipment, such as copiers, for its election office. Bennett bought the old equipment, noting that it's often only used twice during a year.

"We buy old equipment," he said. "We are watching your nickels."

When his department needed a new van, he said the state had negotiated prices if counties wanted to use its vendor. Instead, Bennett shopped locally and saved "a couple of thousand dollars along with keeping the business in the area."

"To me, it is what we should be doing," he said. "And we have Scott (Farrington) as our No. 2, and he is as cheap as I am. We also have Mike Smith, and I don't know what to call him, I guess our facilities manager, and he is cheap, too."

Bennett and his staff are about to get busy with more than pinching pennies as the calendar year turns to 2024. Besides the regularly schedule primaries and the General Election, a presidential preference election will be held in March.

The election office utilizes 70 precincts, down from 122 precincts 10 years ago. He said Manatee County taxpayers save money because he doesn't have to staff all those extra precincts. It helped that Manatee County went from one early voting site to six, and became aggressive in asking its residents to consider vote by mail.

He said it will be important that the Lakewood Ranch Library will open (possibly by January) and therefore will be in the rotation in 2024. He said Manatee County needs Parrish to have its own gathering site to host voting as well.

"We are trying to get the county to build something," he said. "We've got to have something about 3,000 to 4,000 square feet. We need to put 150 people in that room."

Taxpayer funded properties must allow their buildings to be used by county elections. Sometimes Bennett has to twist arms.

"Everyone is patient with the voting system until they are inconvenienced," he said.

Election cost

Counties spending most per registered voter in Florida
CountyRegistered votersCost per vote
1. Union7,666$67.92
2. Taylor12,832$55.14
3. Alachua184,694$52.32
4. Madison11,568$50.40
5. Holmes11,568$46.98

Counties spending least per registered voter in Florida
CountyRegistered votersCost per vote
1. Manatee284,459$10.92
2. Citrus123,072$11.48
3. Sumter120,842$12.94
4. Martin120,206$14.04
5. Marion276,043$14.34



Jay Heater

Jay Heater is the managing editor of the East County Observer. Overall, he has been in the business more than 41 years, 26 spent at the Contra Costa Times in the San Francisco Bay area as a sportswriter covering college football and basketball, boxing and horse racing.

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