Manatee County may change referendum date for health care tax vote

skennedy@bradenton.comMarch 27, 2013 

MANATEE -- The Manatee County Commission voted Tuesday to consider changing the date from June to August for a referendum on a half-cent sales tax to finance indigent health care, and provide property tax relief.

The vote was 4-3 with Commission Chairman Larry Bustle and Commissioners Betsy Benac, John Chappie and Carol Whitmore in favor and Michael Gallen, Robin DiSabatino and Vanessa Baugh voting against.

The board plans to make a final decision on the referendum date at an April 9 meeting, officials said.

Gallen, who made the motion to reconsider, said he supported the half-cent sales tax that would pay for health care for the poor, but hoped to amend the date to August 2014, rather than June 2013.

He wanted to avoid the six-figure cost of a June special election, take more time to flesh out a health plan that accompanies the tax proposal and to better educate voters.

After the vote, he said the August 2013 date "does not solve any of my reasons for initiating the motion to reconsider."

Other commissioners also were concerned about the cost of a special election, and some said they were not given enough time to consider the tax proposal before their original vote on March 12.

Disabatino said she would have preferred a November 2013 referendum "to see how things shake out" on the state

and federal levels, where national health care reform is under way.

Benac said she preferred an August 2013 referendum date "because more people are here."

Benac also said she was hearing from residents "very much opposed to this tax" because their health care arrangements are already undergoing so much change.

Two weeks ago, the Manatee County Commission voted in favor of a June 18 referendum on raising the sales tax.

The same day, the board unanimously OK'd a resolution also asking voters whether to allow tax exemptions to new businesses and expansions of existing businesses.

Under the proposal, the sales tax rate would go up from 6.5 percent to 7 percent if voters approve, generating $23 million annually. However, most taxable consumer purchases costing more than $5,000 would be exempt from the surtax.

A seven-page health care plan sets out how part of the money would be used when current county funds for indigent care are exhausted in 2015. The sales tax hike is part of a three-pronged effort to lower property tax rates by 13 percent to 26 percent, by shifting costs to a broader base of payers, County Administrator Ed Hunzeker has said.

If approved by a majority of Manatee voters, the sales tax increase would cost about $64 a year for many middle-class families, based on IRS estimates, according to Nick Azzara, the county information outreach coordinator.

The health care plan emphasizes primary and preventive services, early intervention, health education, case management and coordination of health and social services.

Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7031. Follow her on Twitter

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