Tag Archives: 07-24-2013

Manatee County expands on nature

Armed with a plan to acquire an additional 150 acres for the Robinson Preserve in northwest Bradenton, Manatee County Natural Resources director Charlie Hunsicker announced at a public meeting July 15 an ambitious expansion of the park.

Speaking before an estimated 40 people at the Palma Sola Botanical Park in northwest Bradenton, Hunsicker said funding for the expansion could come from the BP Oil spill settlement to Manatee County, a Southwest Florida Water Management District grant, private donations or a combination of all three.

Hunsicker said Manatee County Commissioners will meet Oct. 31 to approve a cooperative agreement with the Conservation Foundation of the Gulf Coast to own the added property. The $4 million in funding for the foundation to purchase the 150 acres and donate it to the county came from the Mosaic Foundation, part of the Mosaic phosphate mining company in central Florida.

Hunsicker said the Robinson family withheld 200 acres when it sold 501 acres to the county in 2002 to create the preserve. The family intended to build single-family homes and a golf course on the 200 acres, but the downturn in the economy made the plan not viable, Hunsicker said.

After selling 150 of the 200 acres, the remaining 50 acres will be used by Neal Communities for single-family homes, Hunsicker said, unless the county can find additional funding to buy that land. The price is $6 million.

But 150 acres gives Hunsicker’s department room to greatly expand and enhance the preserve, he said.

Plans call for restoration of the coastal habitat as it was in the 1940s, construction of a rookery for sea terns and other birds, open water features to support tidal circulation and recreation, additional parking areas, a walkway under a tree canopy and construction of a “true environmental center with age-specific playground areas to accommodate the steadily increasing popularity of the preserve,” Hunsicker said.

The environmental center will be named the Mosaic Center for Nature, Exploration, Science and Technology.

Additionally, a new kayak launch will be established along with a 1.6 mile trail for pedestrians and joggers through the canopy of trees in the preserve. Bicyclists will have their own path to avoid interference with walkers and runners, he said.

Hunsicker estimated the cost of improvements to the preserve at $4.1 million and said the funds likely would come from the county’s share of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill settlement. The total cost of improvements and purchasing the additional 150 acres is about $8.2 million, he said.

“The only problem is I don’t know when the BP settlement is going to happen. It could take years,” he said. Hunsicker has learned from attorneys handling Florida’s claim with BP that Manatee County will receive $4 million-$19 million in the settlement. Without waiting for any BP money, Hunsicker is applying to Swiftmud for a $4 million grant to pay for the improvements. At the same time, he’ll also seek other funding sources.

“We’re not going to wait,” he said. County commissioners are expected to approve the expansion at their Sept. 13 meeting. Once that occurs and as funds become available, construction on the improvements will begin, he said.

Hunsicker and his staff of Melissa Nell and Max Dersch received several rounds of applause from those attending the meeting.

The general sentiment among the attendees was the hope that Hunsicker could find the money to purchase the remaining 50 acres from Neal Communities to maintain the entire area as a nature preserve.

Hunsicker noted the expansion is separate from the Perico Preserve project, which is creating saltwater lakes to grow seagrass for areas of Sarasota Bay, Perico Bayou and Anna Maria Sound that may need replenishment of seagrasses. The Perico Preserve also will provide homes to a number of birds and other wildlife.

The fill from digging the lakes is being sold to Minto Communities for its Perico Island-Harbour Isle project, Hunsicker said. The funds help cover expenses related to the Perico Preserve, he added.

Big $3.5m Anna Maria 2013-14 budget figure ‘not so big’

Anna Maria Mayor SueLynn presented her 2013-14 budget to city commissioners July 17, calling the proposed $3.05 million spending plan one of the largest in recent years. Revenue for the present year is $2.54 million — up from the anticipated $2.45 million that was projected when the budget was approved.

Considering the “bare bones budgets” of the past few years, the mayor said that with higher than expected revenue this fiscal year it is time to focus on stormwater drainage, maintenance and capital improvements.

“It’s no surprise, but we have a real drainage problem in the city, and it gets worse as more houses are built or enlarged. The water has no place to go,” she said.

Commissioner Dale Woodland, however, pointed out the new budget plan isn’t really that much bigger than the 2012-13 budget.

He said it’s near the current budget without the anticipated one-time $300,000 payment for a cell tower in revenues for the coming fiscal year, along with $30,000 expected as a lease payment. Also, adding to the additional revenues is the increase in city pier rent of $700 per month beginning in December.

Woodland said in his opinion the cell tower income is really “pie-in-the-sky” revenue. It may not come to fruition.

He also said the additional $31,000 from the proposed .05 increase in millage is a minimal figure. He proposed either maintaining the current millage or reducing the rate. The rollback rate – the ad valorem rate that would produce the same tax revenue as in the current 2012-13 budget – is 1.9507. Any millage rate higher than 1.9507 amounts to a tax increase.

“You know me. I’m never in favor of increasing taxes,” Woodland said.

The ad valorem millage rate is the tax rate per $1,000 of assessed valuation the city receives for property. A property owner with a home valued at $400,000 and with an ad valorem tax rate of 2.10 mills would pay $840 in property taxes to the city. That figure would not include the tax paid to Manatee County or other accessed taxes. At a 2.05 millage rate, the same homeowner would pay $820 in city taxes.

If all the anticipated cell tower revenue is taken out of the proposed budget, Woodland said it would be back to about $2.6 million, which is not much more than the $2.5 million in revenue city treasurer Diane Percycoe said she anticipated by Sept. 30. Thus, he maintained, the budget is “not so big.”

Woodland said it’s time for the city to look at revenue from people who come to the city on holidays and weekends.

“After pleading and pleading with Manatee County and the Tourist Development Council for funds and getting nowhere,” Woodland said the city should look at a daily parking fee.

The mayor defended the proposed revenue increases in the budget. “We have to plan on what’s anticipated,” she said.

She also has suggested commissioners discuss paid parking as an option to control day visitors and as a revenue stream.

Percycoe agreed that the budget is based on revenue estimates. The city’s share of county and state revenues is always an estimate at budget time.

Commission Chair Chuck Webb limited discussion on the budget because Commissioners Gene Aubry and Nancy Yetter were absent.

“We would have to repeat everything anyway,” Webb said. “We just received the budget today and we’ve got two commissioners absent, so how deep do we want to go?”

He proposed commissioners be prepared for a discussion at the July 24 budget meeting.

The 2013-14 budget shows a $55,000 drop in the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office contract for law enforcement services. The mayor anticipated a $670,000 contract, but the MCSO submitted one for $615,000 because younger deputies with less salary and benefits are assigned to the Anna Maria substation.

The budget also includes $30,000 in capital improvements for some beach walkovers which are in need of repair. The budget also contains $60,000 to build a seawall along the city property that adjoins the Lake LaVista channel.

The city plans to hire a third full-time employee for the public works department and increase staff salaries 3 percent.

The city’s $225,000 loan payment for the Pine Avenue property it purchased in 2011 is included in expenses, as is $17,600 in emergency contingency funds.

The next budget work session is 6 p.m. Wednesday, July 24, at the Anna Maria City Hall, 10005 Gulf Drive.

Rate stays same, but tax increases in Bradenton Beach

After adjusting and approving city department budget proposals, Bradenton Beach commissioners voted July 18 to maintain the millage rate at 2.3329 for the 2013-14 budget —  a tax increase for property owners.

Revenue for the current spending plan is $2,391,787, while anticipated revenue for 2013-14 brings the budget up to $2,502,724.

The rollback rate – the millage rate that would produce the same tax revenue as the current 2012-13 budget is 2.2302. Any millage rate higher than 2.2302 amounts to a tax increase.

A mill is $1 for every $1,000 of assessed property value. Commissioners raised taxes in the 2012-13 budget to cover a $145,000 budget shortfall. The city voted in 2012 to raise taxes to cover half the shortfall, while paying the other half from the city reserve fund.

The impact to a person owning a home valued at $450,000 was an additional $85 in property taxes over the previous year.

According to city financials, ad valorem taxes collected by the city are expected to increase from $924,468 in 2012-13 to $950,000 due to higher property values.

Commissioners concluded department budget reviews and approved maintaining the millage rate the same. The unanimous approval for the millage rate means commissioners cannot raise the millage as the budget process continues, but state statute does allow the city to lower the rate before finalizing the budget in September.

City officials, July 18, began with the administration budget. The 2012-13 budget addressing administration expenditures was set at $360,738. The proposed 2013-14 budget had a modest increase request to $364,700.

City clerk and chief financial officer Nora Idso fielded questions from commissioners that began with Commissioner Jan Vosburgh asking why Idso’s professional services budget increased from $10,000 to $18,000.

Idso said the city is paying more for its computer and software services because “we are trying to Band-Aid the server to keep it running. To get a new server would run between $30,000-$40,000.”

Vosburgh also questioned the department’s operating supplies budget. The commissioner noticed the budget did not increase from last year’s $4,000, while only $788 had been spent.

She wanted to know why so much money should be kept in a line item that isn’t being used as expected.

Idso said more expenses were expected before the end of the fiscal year, which is Sept. 30. However, after reviewing a breakdown of those expenses, she agreed to shave $2,000 from her request.

Commissioners unanimously agreed to approve the budget at the new amount of $362,700.

Commissioners moved on to address the planning department’s budget and it didn’t take long for Commissioner Ric Gatehouse to question an additional $25,000 increase in salaries.

Idso said M.T. Causley Inc., which contracts building official Steve Gilbert to the city, asked for a 5 percent increase. Idso said it’s been seven years since the company has asked for an increase.

Gatehouse said he would not favor an increase when the city has made efforts to reduce planning expenditures.

“If I recall, last year we had discussed having city planner Alan Garrett come on board to take some of the duties from Steve to save money on the overtime wages,” said Gatehouse. “That was one reason, but we also spent money on software that has not been installed to speed up the permit process.”

Gatehouse said he’s not seeing the cost savings behind those two actions.

“And now we are being asked for a cost increase? I think that is counter to what our plans were,” he said.

Commissioners briefly discussed a compromise to allow a 2.5 percent increase, but comments were largely against that idea.

“My position on this is we were looking for cost savings and instead, they are looking for an increase,” said Gatehouse. “We are going in an opposite direction. We’ve lightened Steve’s workload. We should see some reflection in that.”

Gatehouse said the software to speed up the permit process was paid for in the 2012-13 budget and has not been installed. He said the software was purchased at a considerable expense in order to reduce work hours.

“We’ve asked for certain things to be done and it hasn’t been done,” said Gatehouse. “So we are going to reward them for asking them to do something they didn’t do?”

Commissioners agreed and denied the $25,000 proposed increase and voted to approve the planning department’s 2013-14 budget of $343,500.

Minus the $25,000, the planning department’s budget was reduced from this year’s $349,657 budget.

The commission also adjusted its own budget of $33,400. Commissioners cut contribution funds in this year’s budget due to financial restraints.

Commissioner Gay Breuler noticed $1,500 was unused this year and $1,000 was proposed for the 2013-14 budget in the travel line item.

Breuler suggested taking $750 and moving it into the contributions line item to increase it to $1,250.

Gatehouse said he was disappointed the city was unable to do more for the Annie Silver Community Center this year and would like to see the center receive more help.

Discussion ensued on a prior request to help with the fireworks at the BeachHouse Restaurant, but Gatehouse said no one followed up as promised.

Mayor John Shaughnessy said he would rather see the money go to a place like the community center, “rather than a private undertaking.”

Commissioners provided a consensus to shift some funds from travel to contributions, but did not decide where the funds would go.

Following the three days of budget meetings, Idso said she would make the adjustments voted on by commissioners and present a new budget.

Commissioners can address the budget as needed before finalizing it in September, but the vote to set the millage rate means there will be no increase in city taxes.

More on the BB budget: page 14.

Resort tax collections on record pace

With $612,529 collected in May and four months remaining in the fiscal year, Manatee County is ahead of last year’s record pace for resort tax collections.

The resort tax, commonly called the bed tax, is the 5 percent collected by Manatee County on accommodation rentals of six months or less.

Sue Sinquefield of the Manatee County Tax Collector’s resort tax division reported May bed taxes were $46,929 ahead of the $565,600 collected in May 2012, an 8.3 percent increase.

The year-to-date total resort tax collected is $6.4 million, $560,000 more than the $5.84 million collected during the first eight months of the 2011-12 fiscal year. Collections that year set a record of $8.1 million, eclipsing the previous record of $7.1 million set during the 2010-11 fiscal year.

Collections this year are on pace to reach nearly $9 million, according to Sinquefield’s figures.

The increase in resort tax collections is a barometer for any tourism increase to Anna Maria Island. In 26 of the past 27 months, the percent of tourism increase to the Bradenton area has been about half the percentage increase in resort tax collections.

And this summer season appears anything but slow.

David Teitelbaum, owner of four resorts in Bradenton Beach and a member of the Manatee County Tourist Development Council, said reservations are “through the roof” for the remainder of July and the first three weeks of August.

Rebecca Barnett of Anna Maria Island Accommodations in Anna Maria added, “We don’t have anything left for July except a few odds and ends, and August is filling up rapidly. I would say if someone is planning an August vacation to the island, they better make a reservation now, before it’s too late.”

Anna Maria Island Chamber of Commerce president Mary Ann Brockman agreed. “We’ve been flooded with walk-ins looking for rooms and attractions. We keep an inventory of available rooms among our members, but it’s been decreasing a lot. We’ve still got a few openings, but every indication seems to say the rest of the summer will see a full island,” she said.

Reservations taper off at the end of August, as local public schools reopen Aug. 19.

The summer tourist season on Anna Maria Island is traditionally when Florida families go to the beaches for a week or two, Brockman said.

“So far, no one has been complaining they don’t have any business,” she added.

The resort tax is used to fund the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau budget, the Bradenton Convention Center, the Powel Crosley Estate, McKechnie Field and other public venues and attractions around Manatee County, as well as beach renourishment projects.

HB-Mainsail unsettled, mediation unscheduled

Holmes Beach commissioners discussed July 9 the need to schedule a special meeting in order to garner a firm position for the city’s two representatives to take to the mediation table with the Mainsail development team following a progressive June 21 first round of negotiations.

That special meeting was never scheduled. However, listed on the July 23 city meeting agenda is a presentation of the updated Mainsail concept plan for the development project at what is considered to be the city’s center at the intersection of Gulf and Marina drives.

The June 21 mediation was launched following a March vote where commissioners revoked the Mainsail site plan citing too many code and setback violations among other issues.

Commissioners Marvin Grossman, Judy Titsworth and Pat Morton voted to revoke the site plan while Commissioner David Zaccagnino and Commission Chair Jean Peelen supported giving Mainsail more time to work with city staff.

Mainsail president Joe Collier and Mainsail investor Ed Chiles said they never expected commissioners to take action in March during what was an anticipated initial presentation to show how the development company was working with city staff to move in a positive direction toward eventual commission approval.

Sarasota attorney Robert Lincoln then filed a petition for relief with the city in April seeking a reversal, which eventually led to the June 21 mediation where the two sides appeared to make progress to avoid litigation.

Mainsail was expected to present an amended concept plan to commissioners July 9 that would include concessions made during mediation.

Among those changes were an elimination of at least one building and a reduction in residential units.

Commissioners were again divided in their opinions when the site plan was not presented July 9, as had been promised.

Mayor Carmel Monti, who supports continuing to work with Mainsail, defended Mainsail’s failed presentation, saying two key people to the city’s input were on vacation.

The Mainsail presentation now will take place at the meeting that begins at 7 p.m. Tuesday, July 23, at Holmes Beach City Hall, 5801 Marina Drive.

In other matters, commissioners have discussed options for how to garner funding for infrastructure needs from either the Manatee County Tourist Development Council or from its source of funding, the resort tax, through the Manatee County Board of Commissioners.

The 5 percent resort tax is collected by the Manatee County Tax Collector’s Office on accommodation rentals of less than six months.

Some city officials are blaming increased needs and costs for infrastructure on increased tourism. However, Florida statutes prohibit the TDC from expending bed tax funds on infrastructure projects unless they are tourism-related.

Officials have called it an unfortunate cycle where bed tax dollars are raised through tourism to create more tourism, while creating more pressure on the cities on the beach and their local infrastructure.

Elliott Falcione, executive director of the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, will address commissioners at the July 23 meeting. According to the agenda, the discussion will be related to TDC funding.

Also on the agenda, commissioners are expected to have initial discussion on establishing a millage rate for the 2013-14 proposed budget and schedule a first public hearing.

The proposed budget had not been announced as of press time for The Islander, although commissioners have participated in individual briefings on the spending plan.

Cumber case management set for July 31

William J. Cumber, accused of the November 2008 murder of Holmes Beach resident Sabine Musil-Buehler, is set for a case management review at 9 a.m. July 31 at the Manatee County Judicial Center.

Judge Thomas Krug is presiding.

Cumber’s attorney has requested four continuances of the case management hearing since the original Jan. 16 date.

Cumber has entered a plea of not guilty to the charge of second-degree murder and requested a jury trial. Manatee County Sheriff’s Office deputies arrested him in connection with Musil-Buehler’s death in early October 2012 while he was incarcerated at the Charlotte County Correctional Institution on an unrelated charge.

According to Manatee County Sheriff’s Office Detective John Kenney, who headed the Anna Maria substation when Musil-Buehler disappeared, Cumber has refused to talk with investigators about the incident, other than to declare his innocence.

Cumber claims Musil-Buehler left their Anna Maria apartment the night of Nov. 4, 2008, following an argument.

Kenney was one of the MCSO deputies who arrested Cumber and returned him to Manatee County to stand trial for second-degree murder. If convicted, Cumber faces a maximum penalty of life imprisonment.

No trial date has been set.

Holmes Beach continues to look at traffic, visitor problems

Whether it is within the commission chambers, in collaboration with others or individually, Holmes Beach elected officials continue to push for answers to the complicated problem of island traffic congestion.

Commission Chair Jean Peelen met with Manatee County administrator Ed Hunzeker July 9 and reported the results of that conversation to the commission later that day at a city meeting.

“I see it as a two-part problem,” said Peelen. “We are maxed out on conventional tourists and it’s a great strain on the city. Secondly, day-trippers from local areas and nearby counties are overwhelming our beaches and creating problems,” including noise, trash and trespassing.

Peelen said the discussion with Hunzeker traversed subjects such as paid parking, paid trolleys, the creation of party buses and water-taxi services.

“I told him it’s going to take a whole recipe of different ways to address the problems,” she said.

Permit-restricted parking in certain residential areas also was discussed, as city officials look at taking action at the local level.

Holmes Beach Police Chief Bill Tokajer’s department has been proactive in providing better enforcement for illegal parking, but commissioners say it’s time to have parking tickets have more impact to people who ignore “No Parking” signs.

Tokajer, who joined officers on patrol during the Fourth of July holiday weekend, told commissioners he was approached by a man who claimed to own the vehicle he was ticketing.

“He asked me if I was writing him a parking ticket and I told him that he was parked in front of a ‘No Parking’ sign. He asked me how much the ticket was and I told him $20. He said, ‘Great, I’ll stay all day.’”

It’s a common reaction from drivers who consider a $20 parking ticket to be no different from the cost to attend a sporting event and pay for parking.

Mayor Carmel Monti has directed the police department to be proactive in enforcing illegal parking and commissioners have discussed raising the fine.

Commissioners did not settle July 9 on an increase, but parking fines are expected to more than double.

Peelen said the discussion with Hunzeker was a positive conversation that included approaching the Manatee County Tourist Development Council to stop advertising the island as a haven for renters.

Commissioner Judy Titsworth said it has created a cycle where the successful advertising campaign creates more bed tax, which creates more money for advertising.

Commissioner David Zaccagnino said he would not be in favor of paid parking at the beaches.

“It hasn’t solved the problem in Clearwater, Sanibel and Captiva,” he said. “They are still overwhelmed with tourists. Ed is a business guy like me and he sees the dollar signs. If you charge for parking, we aren’t going to get the money. The county will.”

Zaccagnino said TDC advertising needs to focus more on promoting the park-and-ride systems and, if the city chooses to charge parking at the county beaches, it risks losing future beach renourishment funding.

Titsworth noted the TDC received $139,000 in May in bed taxes from the island alone.

“The secret is out,” she said. “Our only hope is that people who were stuck in traffic for an hour and a half this weekend will get so discouraged they will go somewhere else.”

But it wasn’t only tourists stuck in parking, as island residents say they attempted to cope with ways to get to stores and restaurants on back roads with little success.

Monti said efforts need to remain focused on solutions instead of complaints. In regards to charging for parking and trolleys, he said, “There is no reason why we need to be free, our beaches need to be free and our trolleys need to be free.”

Consensus was that island residents would be exempt from paying parking fees.

Gallery speakers agreed that something should be done. Resident Pam Lecke also expressed concern at the meeting over the island’s future.

“I know of six houses in my neighborhood up for sale,” she said. “What is going to happen to our churches, our school and our community? There is always change, but you can have change with reason.”

Resident Andy Sheridan — an MCAT employee and trolley driver — said a free bus system from the mainland would not bring the kind of visitors the island wants, and pointed to the free Sunday mainland-beach bus runs sponsored by the county.

“If you ever took a ride on that bus, you’ll see why no one from Lakewood Ranch wants to ride it,” he said. “The free bus stops in downtown Bradenton and picks up a population that takes advantage of any free facility and they go into our stores and shoplift.”

Commissioners pledged to continue their discussion with other island officials and county officials.

Monti said he would meet with the other island mayors to discuss traffic issues, and that the Coalition of Barrier Island Elected Officials should keep traffic congestion as a primary topic of conversation.

LBK trolley future in doubt

The future of the Sarasota County Area Transit trolley that connects Anna Maria Island and Coquina Beach trolley service with Longboat Key and downtown Sarasota may be in jeopardy.

Manatee County public works director Ron Schulhofer says Longboat Key agreed to pay Manatee County Area Transit $42,000 annually to support the trolley, while Longboat Key town manager Dave Bullock and Mayor Jim Brown say the funding agreement was only for one year.

Manatee County subsequently billed Longboat Key for $84,000 for the trolley service for 2012 and 2013.

Schulhofer said Longboat Key has not made a payment and no decision on the future of the service has been made.

Brown said Longboat Key already pays more than $600,000 annually in transportation taxes and that covers the town’s share of the trolley.

According to Brown, he asked Schulhofer to provide a copy of the contract that calls for Longboat Key to make an annual payment of $42,000, but as of last week, it had not been produced.

The SCAT-Longboat Key trolley, which charges a fee to ride, offers Anna Maria Island fare-free trolley-riders a means to connect with the MCAT trolley at Coquina Beach in Bradenton Beach. The Longboat trolley travels to St. Armands Circle and the downtown Sarasota SCAT depot, where riders can link with buses to other parts of Sarasota, including the Siesta Key and the Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport.

Protestors gather on land and sea to fight Long Bar Pointe development

It’s one of the last large pieces of undeveloped coastline in Manatee County and a growing number of people are determined it stays that way.

Dozens of protestors staging from Cortez boarded vessels of all sizes July 19 to form a “boat brigade” that cruised across the Sarasota Bay to Long Bar Pointe, a proposed development site that will encompass more than 400 acres of housing, stores, boat slips and a hotel.

Protestors also gathered landside at the proposed development at the 75th Street-53rd Avenue roundabout in unincorporated Manatee County.

The development would mean losing some of the mangroves and seagrass in the area that protestors say would destroy a valuable breeding ground for fish and wildlife. Some protestors have said the development would be the death of Sarasota Bay.

Opposition to the development continues to grow and the Manatee County Board of Commissioners have a land-use special meeting scheduled Aug. 6 to address the development plans — and a proposed amendment to the county’s comprehensive plan — being proposed by the developer, Carlos Beruff.

Because a large crowd is expected, commissioners have scheduled the meeting to take place at 9 a.m. Tuesday, at the Bradenton Area Civic Center, 1 Haben Blvd., Palmetto.

The meeting is scheduled for the entire day with a noon-1:30 p.m. lunch break.

WMFR budget: 85 percent for wages, benefits

West Manatee Fire Rescue Chief Andy Price presented his proposed 2013-14 budget of $5.65 million to district commissioners July 18, noting it is the seventh consecutive budget year since 2002-03 in which spending is limited to staffing and service levels.

Price said that’s because the district revenues come from a property assessment fees, not from ad valorem property taxes.

The budget proposes an increase to the fire assessment of 1.9 percent. The base fire assessment for residential property is $172.55 for the first 1,000 square feet and $0.102 for each square foot above the first 1,000. Commercial properties have a base rate of $407.19. If the property exceeds 1,000 square feet, the assessment for each additional square foot is $0.176.

Of the $5.65 million budget, 85 percent — $4.83 million — is allocated to wages and benefits. Employees are given a 1 percent cost of living increase in the proposed budget, although Florida’s cost of living allowance allows for a 2.4 percent increase.

Price said health insurance costs are expected to double, according to information received from the district’s insurance carrier. He noted that several years ago, WMFR staff began contributing to the their costs for health care.

If health insurance doubles, Price said the WMFR administrative staff “will evaluate all options to contain costs and minimize the effect on the employees.”

Price also noted that interest income from WMFR reserves has been “severely affected” by economic conditions and is estimated to decline by 55 percent in the 2013-14 budget.

The district has a capital reserve fund of $5.286 million, of which $5.284 million is allocated expenses, including $1.7 million for facilities and $250,000 for debt service.

The district’s total indebtedness is $1.2 million.

Commissioner Scott Ricci said the budget was “as lean as possible with the available income,” and congratulated Price and his staff for ensuring the district goals and needs are met, while keeping staff salaries competitive with other fire districts in the county.

Commissioner Randy Cooper also agreed with the budget, but worried about the costs of the upcoming remodeling work at Station No. 4, 407 67th St. W., Bradenton.

“I’m concerned with the indebtedness. I don’t want to get in over our heads. I just want everyone to be aware that the Station 4 project is coming up.”

Ricci asked about relocating Station 4 to better suit the needs of district residents and ensure faster response times.

Price said such a move has been considered previously. It would require purchasing land and building a new fire station, which could get costly. The Bradenton Fire Department already serves as first responder in the eastern portions of the district, just as WMFR is first responder for northwest Bradenton along Palma Sola Causeway and at the Harbour Isle development on Perico Island.

The board unanimously approved the first reading of the budget. The final public hearing on the proposed budget is 6 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 15, at the WMFR administrative center, 6417 Third Ave. W., Bradenton.