Manatee County Administrator Ed Hunzeker seeks to change the way property taxes are spent. His plan has been presented and placed into motion by a majority of the county commissioners. The focus is said to be jobs and revitalization; however, the plan may actually create havoc for public safety.
Currently, Manatee County property taxes are deposited into the general fund, which primarily funds public safety. Most of our cities have areas where these Tax Incremental Financing Areas (TIFA) help with downtown revitalization (DDAs). The county currently has three types of these areas; one at Port Manatee and 2 Community Redevelopment Areas (CRAs) that were created primarily to reduce crime in the worst parts of the county, so that they don’t end up as blighted wastelands where people don’t want to buy homes or invest in businesses. In each case, they take the increase in tax revenues that would normally go to the general fund to operate the critical county services.
So why worry about the new plan, when we have a similar set-up now? Good question. The way a Tax Incremental Financing Area works is that it freezes the revenue the county gets into its general fund and the increase in revenues instead go into this new fund for the Tax Incremental Financing Area. Manatee County plans to use these funds for developers and helping businesses. The plan also calls for bonds (a fancy word for loans) and uses this new money to pay for improvements in these areas. Like the proposed indigent health care tax issue last year, Hunzeker does not have a specific plan yet, so no one knows the details. What we do know, is that the plan will impact public safety funding and other funds the county relies upon for supplying needed services
The main issue is that as the community grows, additional revenue is needed to pay for additional law enforcement, ambulance services and even the courts. Manatee County is already falling behind in pay for deputies and our emergency medical providers. By robbing these future increases in tax revenues to go into Hunzeker’s newly-created pot of money, we lose the ability to keep up with critical needs for public safety. Simply put, they’ll keep getting more expensive, while the property tax revenues coming in from these new areas remains fixed.
Our current situation is pretty pathetic and will only get worse. EMS workers recently voted to unionize, with more starting the process, not just because of pay issues, but management under Hunzeker that consistently fails to respect the people who work for him.
For example, Sheriff Steube has worked hard to keep up with the validated competition from other law enforcement agencies in the region, but Hunzeker and the majority of the commission fail to adequately fund the needs of his department. The pay has already fallen behind what other law enforcement agencies pay. The sheriff even agreed to his own law enforcement tax rate, that he would justify each year to the citizens. This makes sense when you think about it, since the commissioners do not have the knowledge in this area. But Hunzeker, along with most of the board, just want to second guess the needs of law enforcement.
The list of giveaways in Hunzeker's new plan cost even more than the tax losses to the general fund; eliminating impact fees and permitting costs, while giving out grants. Another unknown impact to the general fund is the new tax abatement program that have yet to be considered in “How Will We Grow.”
The real problem of urban decay stems from new growth not paying its fair share. This makes the market for new homes and developments more attractive for investors than revitalizing our older communities. Just look at the recent vote to fund developer-needed road infrastructure with federal and state dollars. This type of money is needed in our urban areas. There is a cause and effect from this policy. We do not want to be anti-growth, but should we subsidize this at the expense of causing urban decay?
Then we also need to ask, as the bucket of money gets smaller for public safety, will our quality of life improve? Most of the storefronts in this area are filled and while there may be some that need improvements, is that not the role of the free enterprise system, or will government pick the winners and losers instead? We already have unaddressed public safety issues, and it is shameful it has got so bad that once contented employees had to unionize. Unions cost money that could go toward solving the problems, but until employees have confidence in their administration and board, then unions are their last hope.
I was a commissioner when we had a union and we worked to resolve the management issues, and the union ultimately voted to dissolve. Our county administrator and commissioners are responsible for the conditions that have caused efforts to unionize to return. Other areas of the country that have used these Tax Incremental Financing Areas like the one proposed have often failed, leaving the public to hold the bag in paying for needed services when such revenues are diverted for other pet projects. Let us learn from their lessons and avoid this financial disaster.
Joe McClash is a 22-year veteran of the Manatee County Commission and the publisher of The Bradenton Times. He can be reached at email@example.com.