MANATEE -- Manatee County voters will decide in June whether to fund health care costs for the indigent through a half-cent sales tax referendum.
After hours of discussion Tuesday, the Manatee County Commission voted 4-3 in favor of a referendum on raising the sales tax by a half-cent to finance community health care.
The vote was split, with Commission Chairman Larry Bustle and Commissioners John Chappie, Carol Whitmore and Michael Gallen voting in favor; voting against were Commissioners Robin DiSabatino, Betsy Benac and Vanessa Baugh.
If voters approve, the sales tax rate would go up from 6.5 percent to 7 percent. It would generate an estimated $23 million annually.
The referendum will be held June 18, officials said.
Speakers discussed the county health care plan the sales tax would support, which called for prevention and care organized through "patient-centered medical homes" as its key components.
The plan is designed to replace current funds for indigent care, which will be exhausted in 2015, officials have said.
People argued both sides
of the question.
Sara Cohen told the commission she found discouraging "so many questions" and the expense of holding an election in June, when very few people are available to vote.
"It just seems to be at the wrong time," she said, urging the commission to delay a decision until more information was available for voters.
But Holmes Beach City Commissioner David Zaccagnino urged the board to approve referendum plans.
"Let's not kick this can down the road," he said.
The accompanying property tax reduction would help to diversify the economy and encourage growth, he said.
"We should take matters in our own hands and be more proactive," he said.
Kathleen King, chair of the Republican Party of Manatee, suggested it made sense to see what happens with state and national health care changes in the works before approving a local tax increase.
"You don't know that Obamacare won't work," she said.
She was also critical of what she called asking citizens to "subsidize" for-profit hospitals.
County Commissioner Michael Gallen would have preferred a special election in the fall, when more of the electorate would be in town, and hoped for a more detailed plan as well, he said.
Gallen even proposed a motion to set a fall referendum date, but it failed 4-3; the commission then voted again and set a June date.
Commissioner John Chappie favored the sales tax increase, but was concerned about its timing.
"I do believe a sales tax is a lot more equitable," Chappie said. "Everybody pays a little bit."
Commissioner Vanessa Baugh voted against the plan, saying, "I'm not convinced that, right now, we need to move so quickly."
The health care plan emphasized primary and preventive services, early intervention, health education, case management and coordination of health and social services.
Annual incomes of those eligible for the plan ranged from $22,980 for a single-person household to $79,260 for a family of eight, according to Nick Azzara, county information outreach coordinator. All participants must be Manatee residents, officials said.
It would be administered by the county administrator's office or its designee, and monitored by an advisory committee, it states.
The sales tax hike is part of a three-pronged effort to lower property tax rates by 13 to 26 percent by shifting costs to a broader base of payers, County Administrator Ed Hunzeker has said.
The plan's mission was to assure quality health care treatment and preventive services to medically needy residents "of all ages, who lack other health care coverage, and to develop and implement public health programs and policies that foster a healthy community," it said.
Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7031. Follow her on Twitter @sarawrites.com.