BRADENTON - They say there's no free lunch, but David Teitelbaum said Thursday night that there's a way to keep the free Anna Maria Island trolley rolling along.
Ask for donations, he said, and ye shall receive them.
As the heavy beat of a rock band occasionally thundered through the Commission Chambers, the Manatee County Commission held a public hearing on the budget.
Deborah Porter asked commissioners about the effect of budget cuts on the health insurance of retired county workers, Dr. Craig Trigueire spoke up in favor of increasing - not decreasing - the sheriff's budget, and Linda Jentsch asked if it was true that tennis fees were to be increased 30 percent at the Walton Tennis Center.
Fresh off an hour and a half meeting on the county budget, the commissioners listened as Teitelbaum, Vice Chairman of the Tourist Development Council, described a plan to solicit donations through the currently unused fare boxes on the trolley, advertising on the trolleys, and by establishing donor recognition and naming rights for those who give at certain levels.
A recent proposal to charge passengers $1 for a day pass on the trolley has led to concerns that something valuable would be lost if people had to pay to ride the popular mode of transportation. The county has proposed reducing the subsidy it pays to support the trolley by $100,000 a year.
"The trolley's extremely important to us," Teitelbaum said, adding that it's a selling point for the island. Events like wedding parties introduce new people to the island, people who come back and spend money, he said.
Another plan he floated was a "Real Florida Festival," an annual two-day event beginning in March 2010 all over the island, which would help to save the free trolley through admission fees, vendor booth charges and ticket sales for some rides and events.
Teitelbaum's recommendations for 2009-10 are that the TDC continue to provide $26,000 in subsidies for the trolley; that Anna Maria, Bradenton Beach and Holmes Beach each kick in $8,000 for a total of $24,000; and that Manatee County through MCAT provide a $50,000 subsidy while the "Save the Trolley" program is initiated.
For 2010-11, Teitelbaum said that TDC would continue to subsidize the trolley at about $40,000; and each of the three towns would contribute $10,000 each, or $30,000. If fundraising efforts generate excess income, the towns would be reimbursed.
Health care for retirees
Porter said that she worked for 35 years for the county. "My service was not a job, my service was a career and a commitment," she told the commissioners, adding that many others had served the county with dedication and that the commissioners should take that into consideration when cutting benefits for retirees.
"Once they retire, there's no one to represent them," Commissioner Ron Getman said about people in Porter's situation.
When county staffers retire, county Administrator Ed Hunzeker said, state law requires that they be offered a chance to stay with the county's health care plan or given other options, and if they stay with the county's plan they have to pay the full cost, though. However, the county provides a subsidy to help with the cost, and Porter's former department, the Clerk of Court's office, also provides a subsidy, as does the state.
The Clerk's office is cutting its subsidy as part of its budget cuts, and the county cut its own subsidy last year, Hunzeker said.
He agreed that a meeting needed to be set up so county retirees could be informed of their options for other insurance.
Standing up for the sheriff
Trigueire said that instead of cutting the sheriff's budget, other items like libraries or recreation should be slashed to keep up public safety spending.
"If there was any fat in the sheriff's budget, it was gone last year," he said. "I actually would like to see you increase the sheriff's budget."
Fewer deputies, Trigueire warned, would not only slow response times but also times for deputies who need backup. With 17 murders in the county so far this year, he said crime is becoming a growing problem and that he has not only begun carrying a gun himself for protection, but has seen other county residents at a local gun range seeking to buy a weapon to protect themselves.
"There are people who are afraid out there," he said.
As for Jentsch's question about tennis rates, Hunzeker said that the tennis rates are not going up 30 percent, and promised to have someone contact her with the actual increase.
Hunzeker promised that there will be future meetings at which the public can hear more about the county's budget, and that people can stay informed by visiting the county Web site and reading the budget documents posted there.
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