Campaign takes off in Manatee over half-cent sales tax referendum

skennedy@bradenton.comMay 5, 2013 

MANATEE -- Campaigns are in high gear on both sides of a proposal to increase Manatee County's sales tax by a half-cent to help pay for indigent health care.

Among supporters of the plan is a political committee called Healthy Manatee, a nonprofit made up of hospital administrators, Chamber of Commerce members and others who are lobbying for the tax increase expected to raise about $23 million annually. Voters will decide the matter during a June 18 referendum.

Healthy Manatee touts what it says will be $9 million to pay for indigent health care when current funds run out, plus money for tax relief to property owners and tax exemptions for businesses.

Opposing the plan are Tea Party Manatee and the Republican Party of Manatee, which hope to convince residents to vote against the referendum.

They fear double taxation, as the federal government is in the process of instituting national health reform; and they're skeptical of whether property tax relief would ever occur, since it is not even mentioned on the ballot.

Manatee County Administrator Ed Hunzeker, the architect of the sales surtax, contends the proposal is part of a three-pronged effort to lower property tax rates by 13 percent to 26 percent by shifting costs to tourists, renters and others that make up a more diverse base of payers. Until now, money generated from the 1984 sale of Manatee Memorial Hospital has paid for care for the poor and uninsured, but the fund will be exhausted in 2015, officials have said.

"If I were handicapping it, I would say it's going to be an uphill battle," said Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida. "Proponents will have to work really hard to inform and convince people they will get property tax relief, especially since the wording's not on the ballot.

"This kind of structuring of their effort is never an easy

sell," she added.

Already, both sides have begun making telephone calls to voters.

The primary reason the surtax should pass, according to Healthy Manatee members, is that one out of every five citizens in the county has no access to health care.

"I think my strategy is to educate the community regarding the local health care crisis that we have, and making sure the voters can make an educated decision on how important the sales tax initiative is," explained Jonathan Fleece, a health-care attorney who chairs the Manatee Health Care Alliance, a nonprofit consisting of local health-care leaders.

"First, educating, and two, demonstrating that a sales tax with the property tax relief component is the best solution to the problem in the short term," he said. "We're doing a full education campaign."

In the wings are public speaking engagements, op-ed pieces and more phone calls.

He called "Obamacare," the nation's health care reform slated to go into effect Jan. 1, "a mess."

"The state has refused the money for Obamacare, so right now, we're not accepting Obamacare at a state level," he said.

"Does it mean it will never work? Hopefully, it won't be this way forever," he added.

Vernon DeSear, vice president at Manatee Memorial Hospital, said the hospital is supporting the effort of Healthy Manatee.

"We do participate in these things," he said. "Internally, we're sharing information with our hospital staff, medical staff and volunteers, mainly facts and figures related to all the information available, and allowing them to become educated."

The hospital and its affiliated partner, Lakewood Ranch Medical Center, have about 2,000 employees, a medical staff of 700 and a volunteer corps of 600.

Everything from the hospitals' perspective involved with the June 18 referendum is from a volunteer standpoint, he emphasized.

Eventually, fliers will be posted in the hospital and, once signs are available through Healthy Manatee, the hospital expects to ask volunteers to post them around the community, he said.

Many health organizations are part of Healthy Manatee's effort to win surtax approval, he said.

"All of us are involved in that -- Manatee Glens, Manatee Rural Health, all of us, would be on the receiving end of these funds," he said.

On the other side is Tea Party Manatee, which "definitely wants it defeated," according to President Steve Vernon.

"We're trying to contact as many people as we can, although we don't have money to do mass mailings, radio or TV announcements like our opponent does," said Vernon. "We get $5 or $10 contributions from people who sympathize with our view. We're trying to do it with on-the-ground kind of basis, a grassroots basis."

Tea Partiers are planning a door-to-door, person-to-person campaign among their friends and neighbors, he said.

"There is no guarantee, there is no firm commitment, no promise that the county commissioners will vote to decrease the property taxes, and so therefore, we could easily be double-taxed," Vernon said, explaining what he planned to tell voters.

"Not only would you have sales tax if this were approved, but our property taxes would be the same."

Those supporting the tax hike are promoting "disinformation and confusion among the voters," he said.

The Republican Party of Manatee has also taken a firm stand against the surtax.

On its website, amid images of police sirens, is the admonition: "Vote No!" Sales Tax Increase Special Election.

Republican Party Chair Kathleen King wondered in a post on the website why "struggling taxpayers need to raise their own taxes to pay to reimburse for-profit institutions?"

She wrote: "Why rush this through, without waiting to see how the Affordable Healthcare Act impacts health care delivery for the medically indigent?"

Another sticking point, she wrote, was why Manatee County commissioners asked taxpayers to pay $300,000 for a special election, rather than placing the question on a regular general election ballot in 2014.

One group that will skip political campaigning altogether is the Manatee County administrators, whose financial plan is at the heart of the tax proposal.

"We're prohibited by Florida statute by spending funds to advocate one way or another," said Nick Azzara, Manatee County's information outreach coordinator. "We can't actively campaign one way or another."

However, Azzara said he can provide information on the county's websites.

Hunzeker will be making speeches before political and community groups and clubs, and explaining it for editorial boards and others, Azzara said.

The timing of the special election during a summer month may influence its outcome, said MacManus.

"This is one of those cases that are difficult to predict," she said. "Special election turnout is usually very, very low."

Those who do turn up and vote are usually older and tend to be very highly informed, she said.

On the other hand, there's uncertainty about who's going to be voting, based on how much publicity about the state's troubles with Medicaid and other influences voters experience, she said.

And right now, people are distrustful of government when it comes to money promises, she said, adding: "People are distrustful a bit of elected government officials in general."

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

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