MANATEE -- Property tax cuts for homeowners are still possible even though voters rejected a proposed sales tax increase to pay for health care programs, Manatee County Administrator Ed Hunzeker said Wednesday.
If the Manatee County Commission approves two other steps -- adding electric franchise fees and transferring sheriff's patrol costs -- it would result in county property tax reductions of 17 percent for municipal residents and 9 percent for residents in unincorporated areas, said Hunzeker.
Both steps would affect residents in unincorporated Manatee County. Municipal residents already pay electric franchise fees, and city residents have their own police, so transferring sheriff's patrol costs would be paid by residents in the unincorporated areas.
Another alternative the commission could consider would be to just leave everything the way it is now, with no tax reductions or increases, Hunzeker said.
"You'd still have a $9 million hole in 2015," he said. "You'd have one year to figure it out."
That is the amount now paid for health care for the indigent that will dry up in two years.
Voters Tuesday rejected a proposal to use a higher sales tax to pay for health care programs, including services for the indigent. The possibility of larger property tax cuts -- 25 percent for city residents, 13 percent for residents of unincorporated Manatee -- was not enough to sway the election.
Asked how he would fill the budget gap in the absence of surtax proceeds, Hunze
ker replied: "I have no suggestions."
Would the commission support property tax increases to pay for health care costs?
"No -- no one has indicated they're prepared to raise taxes," Hunzeker said.
County Commission Chairman Larry Bustle, a staunch supporter of the failed sales tax increase, said he is disappointed but voters have spoken, "and we will try to adjust."
"I think we collectively have to start looking for a solution to the health care problem for the working poor, the indigent or whatever you want to call them -- hopefully one that doesn't involve raising taxes," Bustle said. "I don't think that we can avoid taking care of people who can't take care of themselves, but I guess we'll have to find a way to help them that doesn't involve raising taxes."
Commissioner Robin DiSabatino, who opposed the sales tax increase, said she would also oppose adding an electric franchise fee.
"I don't feel it's the right time," she said. "Voters say, 'No new taxes,' "
An electric franchise fee, she said, would be a regressive tax that would affect most those who could least afford to pay it.
When asked what the next step might be, a pro-surtax leader of the Healthy Manatee political committee hesitated making any sort of prognostication.
"I don't know even what to predict, which option our leaders will take," said attorney and health care expert Jonathan Fleece. "There are only two. There is a plan that has been developed to provide health care in a better model around prevention and wellness and keeping people out of the ER.
"That model will stay the same, but at the end of the day, one out of five or so Manatee County residents have no funding for health care. And they're going to continue to knock on providers' doors. We've got two choices: Cut services, or these people will go without, or raise property taxes."
Steve Vernon, president of Tea Party Manatee, which opposed the surtax, said the next step will be developing a "well-thought out" health care plan vetted by taxpayers and health care providers.
"We have to really think this out, and we have to have all the stakeholders involved, including the taxpayers," he said. "The citizens in general in Manatee County -- that's what was missing in the last one. They had all the health care stakeholders, but the taxpayers weren't represented."
Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7031. Follow her on Twitter @sarawrites.