Bradenton wants county to revisit sales tax hike for infrastructure needs

myoung@bradenton.comMay 21, 2014 

BRADENTON -- It doesn't take a lot of driving around Bradenton before a tire finds a pothole or a driver traverses a neighborhood road that feels more like gravel than asphalt.

But with no expected increases in the 2014-15 fiscal year budget, paving funding will likely remain minimal within the city's expected $35 million budget.

City officials met Wednesday to discuss how an average annual paving budget of $400,000 can begin to cover the estimated $3 million to $4 million needed for paving projects.

The most popular idea among council members: Ask Manatee County to revisit a half-cent sales tax referendum.

The county attempted a referendum in June 2013 for a sales tax increase to help fund indigent health care, but it was voted down. City officials believe if a new referendum campaign focuses on infrastructure, it may be more palatable to voters. Part of the infrastructure burden would be placed on tourists, who also purchase goods and services in the city and are partially responsible for general wear and tear to the city's roadways.

City Clerk Carl Callahan said the best way to approach long-term issues like continued roadwork is to seek a fund that is never touched for any other reason, and the city's share of a half-cent sales tax could be devoted solely to roadwork.

Other temporary funding sources like the sale of city property can be used for road paving, but Callahan called that a bad idea.

"You can sit there and say, 'OK, let's put a half-million dollars from this sale into the paving budget,'" he said. "Well, that's good up until something out of your control happens and you need discretionary dollars. And the problem with using one-time funding is that eventually the roads are going to deteriorate again, which is why a source of permanent funding is needed."

That was the idea behind the fifth-cent gas tax, but Callahan said with rising costs, the annual maintenance budget is "eating that up and as those costs rise, new paving projects become less available."

Mayor Wayne Poston said a better argument can be made for a sales tax increase for infrastructure than what the county made for health care.

"It was too hard for people to understand," said Poston.

The county pushed the 2013 referendum to a $250,000 special election rather than giving the health-care campaign time to develop to the November general election. It was a split vote by the county to have the failed special election, which has become a source of contention among commissioners to this day.

County officials were surprised Wednesday to hear about city officials' discussion to revisit the half-cent sales tax. At-Large Manatee County Commissioner Carol Whitmore said it was the first she has heard of the idea, but she's open to listening.

"I think we all saw what happened with the results of trying this last year," she said. "Any one city certainly has the right to discuss an idea with us and we'll listen to what they have to say."

Whitmore suggest that it might be better to first discuss the idea with other city governments and present a united front.

The mention of raising any tax can be a hot-button topic for voters, but Ward 1 City Councilman Gene Gallo, who supports going to the county about a sales tax, said the cost to live in Bradenton from a city tax standpoint has not increased dramatically in 30 years.

"People don't like tax increases, but people don't understand that the city taxes are limited compared to their overall tax bill," he said. "If I want a good service, I have to be willing to pay for it."

Callahan said city taxes are third in line on a property owner's overall tax bill, behind the Manatee County School District and the county's share.

The overall budget process is a little behind, according to Callahan, but all city departments have been notified that the "status quo will remain," in terms of department budgeting.

Mark Young, Herald urban affairs reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7041 or follow him on Twitter

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