BRADENTON -- With the proposed half-cent sales tax referendum just four days away, the campaign heated up Friday as supporters staged a rally at the historic courthouse and opponents firmly stood their ground.
Supporters used the rally to accuse the opposition of misinforming voters about what the tax would pay for.
"Don't let them confuse you with the wrong message," said Jonathan Fleece, a health care attorney and member of Healthy Manatee, the group spearheading the campaign to win voter approval of the proposal.
If approved, the surtax would pay for county health care programs, including services for the indigent. Also, County Administrator Ed Hunzeker has proposed lowering property tax rates if the sales tax hike is approved.
Several speakers at the rally from Healthy Manatee, Manatee Glens Hospital, Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Manatee County Democratic Party Black Caucus, and Galvano One-Stop Center,
among others, stressed the importance of voters approving the ballot initiative.
They also denounced the negative campaign of groups opposed to sales tax hike proposal, especially a flier that said "approval of the healthcare sales tax increase could lead to taxpayer dollars funding abortion."
In spite of what the speakers said about his group's flier's statement on funding abortions, Eric Robinson, of Manatee Against Taxation, said he remains opposed to the proposed sales tax hike. Reached after the rally, Robinson said, "The contracts they now have with the hospitals allow them to have abortions if the doctor finds it medically necessary.
"It's not a falsehood," he said.
Robinson said he was surprised the pro-sales tax groups were "making such a big deal over this flier."
"We didn't call a pro-life rally," he said. "We didn't call the newspapers."
The Venice-based principal of a CPA firm said there are other reasons to oppose the sales tax increase.
"Most of our fliers have to do with indigent care already being taken care of," Robinson said. "The people who are set to gain from the quarter-billion dollars raised over 10 years," he said, "are putting hundreds of thousands into the campaign."
As of May 24, most of the almost $170,000 in political contributions Healthy Manatee had raised for its campaign had come from the out-of-state owners of the three hospitals in Manatee County and members of the hospitals' staffs, according to finance disclosure reports filed with the county elections office.
Similar information about Manatee Against Taxation and another group opposed to the measure is not available because they are registered with the state and have different reporting deadlines.
At the rally Friday, Michele Garden, a nurse and clinic director of the One-Stop Center in Bradenton, which provides medical and dental services poor and indigent county residents, said without the county's help those without insurance would not have any health care.
Many of those in the crowd were clients of the One-Stop Center, including Anthony Barbato.
"I was hospitalized in January for 35 days," Barbato said, "but when I got out the rehab places wouldn't take me because of no insurance."
He said Garden and others at the center helped him find funding for his rehabilitation and credits them for his being able to walk.
Dawn Capo also came to rally to show her support for the sales tax proposal.
"A lot of people need medical help, Capo said, "and One-Stop really supported me and my family."
She said she could not get any insurance because of a pre-existing condition, and the clinic helped her through her pregnancy.
"So the things they are saying about abortion are not true," Capo said, as she smiled at her husband, Michael Capo, who was holding their 5-month-old daughter, Isabella. "A lot of people out there need help."
Fleece and several other speakers emphasized how property taxes could be reduced if the sales tax increase was approved.
Speaking at the rally, Hunzeker said the estimated $23 million the surtax would generate would "fund programs to help working poor with their health care needs.
"It's a shame those in the community who are opposed will cast aspersions," he said.
Fleece said the local hospitals support the referendum because they are property owners and "pay a ton of property taxes."
"They are large employers and donors in this community," he said. "They also contribute to a good health care system."
Fleece, chairman of the Manatee County Health Alliance, which produced a study of health care in the county, said the community needs good hospitals and doctors to attract good businesses.