Put Manatee County sales tax referendum on ballot this year, not 2014

April 9, 2013 

Today the Manatee County Commission is expected to reach a decision on the date for a referendum on a half-cent sales tax increase to pay for indigent health care -- inexorably linked to property tax relief.

But the commission remains divided on the timing of this vote, either on June 18 this year or Aug. 6, 2014. Both dates have merits but the one overriding argument in favor of this year is straightforward: Should the county wait a year, a budget train wreck would ensue.

The commission cannot set the 2014-2015 fiscal year budget without certainty and cannot wait until August 2014 to find out whether voters approved the sales tax-property tax issue. All the heavy lifting on the budget is accomplished before August since the spending plan must be adopted before the fiscal year begins on Oct. 1.

Once the county property appraiser finalizes tax rolls by July 1, the board proceeds. But that would not be possible with an August 2014 election hanging over the process.

Plus, the county cannot consider property tax cuts in the 2013-2014 budget for the very same reason. With a June 2013 election, the appraiser would be able to produce revenue estimates for county budget writers working on the 2013-2014 plan -- thus, implementing the tax reductions of 13 percent for property owners in the unincorporated sections of the county and 26 percent on municipal homes and businesses.

We believe voters would welcome the opportunity to decide this sooner rather than later.

The sales tax increase on purchases under $5,000 would go into effect on Jan. 1, 2014, and would be saved to pay for indigent health care exclusively beginning in 2015 -- the year the current trust fund that had been covering those costs for three decades will be exhausted due to escalating medical bills.

Some taxpayers wonder why they should pay for indigent health care. It's both a moral issue and a legal obligation. We cannot and do not abandon the sick and injured to their own devices and deny medical attention because they lack health insurance or any ability to pay for services. That would be inhumane. And federal law mandates medical care for anyone who seeks it, regardless of their financial situation.

The cost of a June special election is certainly an issue, and the estimated $250,000 to $500,000 gives one pause -- as county Commissioner Michael Gallen pointed out in a commentary piece published in the Herald on Sunday. Why not wait until the August 2015 primary when there would be no cost?

The counter argument was presented by Commission Chair Larry Bustle, who tellingly highlighted the negatives in waiting a year. The cost is small compared with the annual $23 million in new sales tax revenue.

Gallen suggests that the county also wait until the impact of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is known. But all indications are now that Florida will reject the outright expansion of Medicaid, the federal program that pays for indigent care.

Gov. Rick Scott has expressed support for expansion, citing the $26 billion in federal spending in Florida over the first three years -- which translates into jobs and improved health care.

But legislative leaders have rejected outright expansion, though a bill that seeks to create a state-based private health insurance coverage for the poor using federal Medicaid money is in the works. Whether the Obama administration will approve that is not assured.

A wait-and-see approach is wrong for Manatee County. The fact of the matter is commissioners can rescind a sales tax increase should Florida actually adopt a broad program for indigent health care and win approval.

But if that does not occur and the referendum vote is delayed until 2014, the county is stuck -- stuck with raising property taxes or cutting more public services to cover the $9 million in such care in 2015 once the trust fund expires.

Do voters want to gamble on that scenario? We think not. Property tax cuts now are far superior.

Does the electorate need more than a year to become educated on this referendum? Not if county officials immediately schedule meetings with as many community organizations as possible and stage public workshops in libraries and elsewhere.

This should not be a difficult issue to explain. Nor to adopt. Manatee County pays one way or another.

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