Manatee County Commission considering when to hold health care tax vote

skennedy@bradenton.comApril 9, 2013 

MANATEE -- A divided Manatee County Commission on Tuesday was considering when a referendum on a proposal to finance health care for the poor should be held.

Last month, on a 4-3 vote, the board approved a plan calling for a one-half cent hike in the sales tax to pay for indigent care, which would take effect if voters approve during a June 18 special election.

The same day, the board unanimously approved a resolution also asking voters whether to allow tax exemptions for new businesses and expansions of existing businesses. Two weeks later, commissioners expressed second thoughts about the date, and voted 4-3 to rescind the original ordinance, and to consider an August date, instead.

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

The growing cost of health care, along with the growing number of residents in need of indigent services, "has severely strained the fiscal resources available to the county to fund such care," according to the proposed ordinance the board will be reviewing Tuesday.

A seven-page health care plan sets out how part of the money would be used.

The sales tax hike is part of a three-pronged effortto lower property tax rates by 13 percent to 26 per-cent by shifting costs toa broader base of payers,County Administrator Ed Hunzeker has said.

However, property tax relief is not mentioned in the proposed ordinance.

The question for voters would read: "Shall Manatee County levy a countywide one-half cent sales surtax? The proceeds of the sales surtax shall be used to fund health care services for Manatee County residents, including elderly persons and children, whoare indigent or medically poor. Such services shall include primary and preventative care by physicians, clinics, hospitals, mental health centers and alternative delivery sites in a cost effective manner."

Until now, money generated from the sale of Manatee Memorial Hospital to a private, nonprofit firm in 1984 has been used to care for the poor. Proceeds from the sale and interest so far have lasted 29 years, but the fund is expected to be exhausted in 2015, officials have said.

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

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