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Good Old Boy System Alive and Well in Manatee


At Tuesday's BOCC meeting, no one disputed that Ed Hunzeker performed his duties as county administrator competently, or that the county wasn't in a better place than many others that have also had to wind down budgets in the face of declining revenues. But it wasn't a question of whether he should be kept on. The board was voting on whether to significantly increase Hunzeker's compensation package, stuffing it full of lucrative benefits at taxpayer expense, while setting dangerous precedents for future administrative-level employees. In that regard, they failed to make an adequate case, in part because the board's chair was not even honest with the public about the proposal.

Commission chair Larry Bustle kicked things off by delivering the board and public a patently dishonest summary of the contract, claiming that it was just a small raise of about $30,000 and did little beyond putting Hunzeker on par with his peers, who Bustle claimed he was woefully behind in terms of pay. Keep in mind, there had been no public discussion, no workshop for the board – just Bustle, as authorized by the commission, “negotiating” with his good friend and close political ally. Commissioner Bustle mentioned nothing of the other known and unknown costs to the taxpayers – totaling a minimum of well over $60,000 each year!

If Bustle was in charge of negotiating the package with Hunzeker's attorney, he clearly either knew that the cost was much greater and deliberately avoided discussion with the board and clear disclosure to the public, or didn't know the details of what he'd negotiated. Dishonest or incompetent it seems – take your pick. Considering that Commissioner Bustle, while Manatee Port Authority Board Chair, withheld from his fellow board members the fact that incoming director Carlos Buqueras had volunteered to accept a lower deferred compensation package than Bustle had offered, because commissioners raised concerns over setting a precedent by giving him much more than Hunzeker and the county attorney received, I think it's not only clear that he understood the implications, but also why he was so intent to set the precedent back then.

Despite what Commissioner Bustle would have us believe, retaining Hunzeker will now cost Manatee County taxpayers several hundred thousand dollars. The increased salary and the quadrupling of the deferred compensation alone put taxpayers on the hook for a good $340,000 more than they pay now, over the five years of the contract. But Commissioner Bustle also failed to disclose that Hunzeker would get additional raises in the same percentage of any given to county employees over that time. He failed to disclose that the county had agreed to extend health insurance coverage for Mr. Hunzeker and his wife for three years after retirement, the costs the county would incur by way of back payments (plus compounded interest) to the Florida Retirement System in enrolling him back into FRS from DROP, as well as the additional leave time given and the favorable manner in which he can cash out unused time at the end of the year and at retirement.

These details didn't even warrant a single word of discussion in the minds of Commissioners Bustle, Benac, Whitmore, Baugh and Chappie. To hear them speak, none of it mattered. Ed had done a good job and whatever it took to keep him was beside the point. When Commissioners Gallen and DiSabatino raised concerns about moving forward so quickly, without even discussing the long-term costs and ramifications associated with setting such precedents, or considering the option of not securing Hunzeker's continued services at such a premium, their fellow commissioners seemed nonplussed. What did any of that matter?

Apparently the two first-term commissioners weren't on script for the dog and pony show that included parading a handful of political allies in front of the dais to counter the citizens who showed up to voice concern over giving away so many tax dollars – the same ones the board is always claiming are unavailable to light county neighborhoods or put in missing sidewalks. As chairman Bustle noted, the contract was all available online. If anyone wanted to look at it, all they had to do was find it, buried far from the main page, the agenda for the meeting, or even the “latest news” section.

The county had good reason to do as much as they could to avoid public scrutiny of the details. The average Manatee County taxpayer wouldn't be likely to understand why someone being paid over $200,000 would get up to another $23,000 in “deferred compensation,” or why their reported salary also didn't include the $5,400 they received to drive their car to work each year (a county car is made available if they need to leave Manatee for county business); why the board was giving an administrator three weeks of “compensatory leave” each year to make up for time spent working “beyond normal hours” and then letting them cash out up to three weeks of “vacation time” that goes unused at the end of each year, while giving them three more weeks of “sick leave” each year, much of which can also be cashed out if unused.

These things might indeed be hard to swallow for EMS workers, many of whom earn less than the cost of just Hunzeker's perks in a single year and were still told no can do on a raise; for sheriff deputies who had to fill public meetings and plead for their first raise in five years after being snubbed on yet another budget; for other county employees still waiting for their first pay increase in over half a decade, and for taxpayers still holding out for those lights and sidewalks.

After all, Hunzeker successfully cut the budget to reflect declining revenues. In other words, he performed the job he was being very handsomely paid to do at about $185,000 annually. But to hear Bustle tell it, that was a pauper's pittance. It wouldn't even be worth it to look for another qualified candidate willing to take more than six times the per capita Manatee County income that Hunzeker was raking in before the new contract was approved. Even in this depressed economy, the same one in which the school district attracted 29 superintendent candidates, we are to believe that no one could expect someone to do such a job on the low-cost of living Florida gulf coast for a mere 185 grand.

When the new contract was approved, the immediate press release said nothing about costs or even the two dissenting votes. Unlike the proposed contract or notice that commissioners would be voting on it, however, it was placed prominently on the main page of the county's website. It quoted several affirmative comments from commissioners and the business community without mentioning any negative ones. Details of the contract itself – or even a link to it – were likewise absent. It was clearly designed to convey only what a great day it was for Manatee County. Public Information departments, also paid for with taxpayer money, have now apparently shed any pretext of existing to inform the public and have settled into the role of socialized political PR departments. All the good news, none of the bad, and only the facts which aren't found to be inconvenient. The county administration seems to have been studying the school district's playbook in this regard.

Manatee residents should expect nothing more than exactly what they got. So long as they keep electing the well-financed, special-interest sponsored good old boys (and girls) who rubber stamp the status quo, they'll keep getting it. Developers will get a free pass on sprawl and resource mitigation; phosphate miners will get a pass on continuing to plunder our landscape and then selling their residual toxins back to us in the ludicrous name of oral hygiene, and the people who keep the special interest wheels a turnin' will keep getting the sort of sweetheart deals an average Joe can only dream of, while being told the county's too broke to afford the things that impact their quality of life. Such is life in Manatee County.



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