BAY COUNTY POLITICAL LANDSCAPE 2007

Posted In: Politics, Local,   From Issue 633   By: Thomas Baird

08th March, 2007     0

Recently I had the opportunity to sit down with two of the pivotal leaders in Bay County to discuss their outlook for the upcoming year.  Bay County Executive Thomas Hickner has been Bay County Executive for the past 14 years and before that he served as State Representative for 10 years.  Kim Coonan was chosen to lead the Bay County Board of Commissioners at their January meeting.  Chairman Coonan has been a Bay County Commissioner for the past four years.  Both men are Democrats in heavily Democratic Bay County. 

The Review Magazine asked five questions to both of these Bay County leaders to better understand their take on the state of affairs in Bay County. 

REVIEW:  Could you give an overview of the current budget and how it was arrived at?

HICKNER:  Bay County has a $33 million dollar general fund budget.  This budget contained no tax increases and the spending rate was flat for this year's budget.  No jobs were lost in this budget.  Health Care costs continue to be a concern for this and future budgets.  Bay County employees pay 15% of their Health Care costs.  State Revenue sharing was eliminated in 2004 and this means less income for the county.  We will reduce some positions through attrition and still provide the same level of services.  Fund Balance is in good shape and the credit rating for Bay County is good.

COONAN:  An early out retirement was offered to employees to help save about $500,000 dollars on the projected deficit for 2007.  We are looking for ways to increase revenues for the County, as we don't want to layoff people.  We also want to use technology to improve services for the residents with the fewer number of employees. 

REVIEW:  What challenges do you foresee for the next year's budget? 

COONAN:  The biggest challenge for next year's budget will be the cost rising of Health Care for employees and retirees.  We do whatever we can to keep the costs down.  I would like to see us start a County Wellness program for the retirees, which would help keep the costs down.  We have to have a balanced budget and we will.  We also intend to keep the employees informed on the budget and try to make them part of the solution. 

HICKNER:  A new fund that will help the County's cost is the VEBA, which is earmarked for employees' retirement Health Care costs.  This will help keep the County's pension system in its excellent shape. 

REVIEW:  What types of things are you going to do to attract economic development and good paying jobs to Bay County?  

HICKNER:  What my own and the Board's priorities' over the next 12 to 36 months are is to make sure that the Counties' finances are in order, promote economic growth, promote better levels of intergovernmental cooperation, emphasize quality of life issues in Bay County, while viewing our employees as assets.  We also must have the County government working with the businesses that are currently here, to promote the programs like Bay Future to help retain and gain business in Bay County.

COONAN:  I agree with almost everything that the County Executive has stated, to create awareness of some of the jewels that we have here in Bay County.  One would be better use of the State Park in Bay County.  In mid-April we will be hosting a road race for runners to help raise funds for a State Park clean up.  I'd like to see us do things to increase the quality of life issues and an overall wellness of the community.  With these things improving it should be way to create a better economic tool to attract new business in Bay County.  

REVIEW:  Do you have any specific goals for 2007 with Bay County?

COONAN:   I would like to see this software program on training and education for our employees implemented.  This would increase the employee skills and make them more valuable to the county.  I would also like to see the county to go paperless.  With today's technology this can be done.  This would be a saving in itself.

HICKNER:  I agree with Kim on the areas that he has mentioned.  Just to continue the better use of technology that we currently have.  To work with the Division Managers to get ideas from them to better improve their departments.  Update the County Land-use Plan with the last update done in 1968.  Reduce the number of lawsuits that come into the county.  We also need to look at the Juvenile Home and turn it into a moneymaker by offering substance abuse housing.  The Health Department will focus on providing the best care for the senior citizens.  

REVIEW:  What do you think the County unit of government should provide to the residents of Bay County?

COONAN:  To provide the mandated services and as many non-mandated services as our budget will allow.  Recreation is important however we must present a balanced budget each year.  It's important to invest money in kids now through recreation because you could spend much more on them down the road.  We don't want to cut any services.

HICKNER:  Our responsibility is to fulfill our constitutional requirements in a quality way.  We have a summer recreation program and we support the State Park because we feel that it makes sense.  We need to work with others to improve the quality of life for Bay County
residents. 

After the question and answer session was completed, both County Executive Hickner and Board Chairman Coonan expressed that when people have concerns with the County government, they should contact them and try to get answers. 

Chairman Coonan expressed that he will be working on how to improve the rising health care costs for the County.  Things will be tight for Bay County but with these leaders working on bringing forward a balanced budget and improving the quality of life, things look promising for the upcoming year.

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