Manatee commission sets June 18 election on health care sales tax

skennedy@bradenton.comApril 9, 2013 

Manatee County commissioners in April 2013 set an election on whether to implement a sales tax increase to pay for indigent health care. Voters rejected the referendum. FILE PHOTO/TIFFANY TOMPKINS-CONDIE/Bradenton Herald.

MANATEE -- The Manatee County Commission on Tuesday OK'd a June 18 referendum date for voters to decide on a half-cent sales tax increase to finance health care for the poor.

The board voted 5-2 to stick with its original date rather than change the date of the election.

Voting in favor of the motion were Commission Chairman Larry Bustle and commissioners Carol Whitmore, Betsy Benac, Vanessa Baugh and John Chappie. Voting against were commissioners Michael Gallen and Robin DiSabatino.

The board included in its motion a 10-year sunset provision on collection of the sales tax increase and more restrictive income levels to qualify for care.

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 special election set for June 18.

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.

Voters will decide whether the sales tax rate should go up from 6.5 percent to 7 percent, generating $23 million annually.

Most taxable consumer purchases costing more than $5,000 would be exempt from the surtax.

The growing cost of health care, along with higher number of residents in need of indigent services “has severely strained the fiscal resources available to the county to fund such care,” according the ordinance the board adopted.

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 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.

Until now, money generated from the sale of Manatee Memorial Hospital, which was sold 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.

Gallen emphasized he was in favor of the sales tax increase, but opposed a date for the election in June.

He preferred to wait until a regularly-scheduled election next year to save money on the six-figure cost of a special election, and to allow time to put together a more detailed health care plan to accompany the sales tax increase proposal, he said.

“We needed a plan yesterday,” he said. adding that he was ready to endorse a complete one.

“It’s about the taxpayer dollars,” he said.

Bustle countered that the commissioners "get off course here when we start talking about a health care plan."

"We’re voting on how to pay for health care," he said, arguing that the existing plan was sufficient as a guide for how the money generated by the sales tax increase would be spent.

He also expressed concern about the budget hole that would occur if the commission waited, noting that a delay could mean difficult spending cutbacks.

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

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