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Date of Issue: March 17, 2010

Talk forecasts budget choices to come

Bradenton Beach City Commissioner Janie Robertson asks a question about budgeting during a meeting March 9 at city hall. Commissioner Bob Bartelt and city project/program manager Lisa Marie Phillips listen. Islander Photo: Lisa Neff

Bradenton Beach commissioners and staff didn’t deal with figures during a budget discussion March 9, but they did begin an exploration of choices and decisions to come for fiscal 2011.

“We here are going to have to make some big decisions,” said Commissioner Janie Robertson. “We can’t spend any more reserves.”

In Florida, the busy municipal budget season is in July and August, when cities receive data from the state and counties that help forecast revenues for the next year. Those numbers are needed to plan expenditures for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1.

But planning for the new fiscal year already is under way in Bradenton Beach, where Robertson repeatedly has said she wants to have more than a few days to analyze a spending plan and identify potential cuts.

Commissioners met in February with staff for an orientation session on the budget, a sort of Municipal Budget 101 class. A second meeting took place March 9, and others are planned this spring.

Commissioners arrived to the March 9 meeting at city hall, 107 Gulf Drive, with print-outs of the city’s current revenue and expense reports. The report provided a status update on where city departments are on revenues and expenses for fiscal 2010 through February.

Robertson asked several questions about how revenues and expenses are assigned to certain accounts and departments.

Commissioner Bob Bartelt asked whether money appropriated  but not spent in one budget gets carried over to the next budget.

“The only carryovers are capital-improvement projects,” said city clerk Nora Idso.

At the heart of the discussion was not the talk about the revenue and expense report, but rather the expectation that the city, like many other governments, is facing another difficult year for revenues.

“We’re either going to have to raise taxes or find it in here,” Robertson said, referring to the budget and possible cuts.

Robertson said she wants to see more budget details — line-by-line expenses — to help her make decisions.

Idso said the city followed that approach some years ago, but prior commissioners said the added information was not necessary.

“Every two years or four years, it’s like a revolving door,” Idso said of the changing composition of the commission.

Robertson also said she wanted to see from department heads “a bare-bones versus a what-I’d-like-to-have” budget request.

Idso, during the meeting, said “bare-bones” is what department heads submitted for this year’s budget, in which city employees forfeited pay raises, including cost-of-living increases.

“Last year, we were asked by one another to cut our budgets as low as we possibly could … so the commission need not raise taxes,” Idso said. “I believe each department is doing what you are asking.”

Police Chief Sam Speciale added that while Bradenton Beach commissioners have not raised taxes in recent years, Manatee County and the school district have raised taxes.

He said, “Bradenton Beach says, ‘We’re not going to raise taxes.’ How many years can you do that? Look at your tax bill.… This is getting to be the best destination in the country, and we keep saying we’re going to cut services, personnel and benefits and we’re never going to raise taxes?”

Later during the lengthy afternoon discussion, the chief said, “We keep putting blinders on, saying we’re not going to raise taxes.… We’re falling behind. We were, at one time, up just below where we should have been with our salaries. We are so low now.”

Speciale, referring to talk of cuts, said, “You talk about the city bleeding, you’re getting the blood from us.”

Bartelt then expressed a regret that the city has been unable to collect an estimated $100,000 in overdue bills for garbage service and stormwater fees and about the economic crisis in the country.

“The community-at-large didn’t cooperate,” he said. “The economy didn’t cooperate. There’s just some things (the city) can’t anticipate.”

Idso agreed. “There are certain revenues that we don’t have any control over,” she said.

Robertson, near the end of the meeting, said that’s one reason she wants to conduct a more in-depth budget review this year.

“I don’t want 2 percent added or subtracted every year,” she said.

After the mayor adjourned the meeting, Robertson, Bartelt and Commissioner Gay Breuler lingered in the chambers.

Robertson and Breuler exchanged brief words about budgeting that ended abruptly with a caution about Florida’s Sunshine Law, which restricts the nature of conversations between elected officials outside of a public meeting.