Manatee County Commission wrestling with referendum date debate

skennedy@bradenton.comApril 4, 2013 

MANATEE -- Manatee County Commissioner Michael Gallen wants to postpone a referendum until next year on a half-cent sales tax increase to pay for indigent health care and property tax relief.

He would vote against any earlier date, he said.

Gallen's vote is key as one of the 4-3 majority that last month set a special election for June 18, Gallen's position signals a delay is likely or the referendum might not happen at all.

Commissioners will take up the referendum scheduling issue again Tuesday. Commission Chairman Larry Bustle and health care advocates disagree with Gallen.

"A delayed vote means the loss of a year of property tax relief," wrote Pat Glass, a former county commissioner and now chair of Healthy Manatee, which supports a special election this summer.

Bustle still favors a June 18 referendum, saying it presents "a window of opportunity."

"Property owners should be fuming at any calls to delay the half-penny vote until August 2014," Bustle said.

If voters approve, the sales tax rate would go up from 6.5 percent to 7 percent, generating an estimated $23 million annually. Voters would also be asked whether to allow tax exemptions to new businesses and for existing business expansions.

A special election in June or August could cost as much as $400,000, Manatee Elections Supervisor Michael Bennett estimates.

"If the referendum is held during a regular election next year, in 2014, there would be no additional cost," Gallen wrote in a letter this week.

But there are other costs to consider, Bustle coun

tered.

"If you wait past June, you're going to have a significant budgeting problem between now and 2015 and then, in 2015, you'll have a lack of money to pay for indigent health care," said Bustle.

"Therefore, we're going to wind up with $9 million worth of things we can cut out of the budget -- or raise taxes; I don't think either one is right."

Gallen said an election next year would draw more voters, provide more time for them to understand the issues and allow development of a better plan to guide how the money would be spent.

"I strongly support implementing a new indigent health care plan, and support a referendum in 2014...," Gallen wrote. "If you agree...I urge you to let your voice be heard."

Commissioner Robin DiSabatino also said she preferred an election in August or November 2014.

"My reason is not to deprive the citizens of the right to vote," DiSabatino said. "I just don't want to charge them extra money on a special election."

Bustle said it's time to stop the political squabbling and put the sales tax issue to a vote.

"I think we need to let the voters decide. It's an insurance policy; If Obamacare comes through and Medicaid is resolved in the state of Florida, we don't need the sales tax (increase), and we'll rescind it," Bustle said.

The alternative would be to raise taxes or leave the poor without health care, he said.

Glass accused those attempting to delay the election of "maneuvering to defeat what could be the most significant tax relief measure in Manatee County's history," she wrote. "They're not being forthright with voters about their motives."

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

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