LAKEWOOD RANCH -- Citizens squared off in a spirited and sometimes contentious debate Tuesday night over the issue of the half-cent sales tax to pay for indigent health care on the June 18 referendum ballot in Manatee County.
Sponsored by the Lakewood Ranch Democratic Club, nearly 30 people in attendance heard from Sue Dickie, chairwoman of the Manatee-Sarasota League of Women Voters Health Committee, and Lou Murray, co-chairman of the Manatee Democratic Black Caucus Health Committee.
Frank Cronetti, vice president of the Democratic Club, began the meeting by saying information is the voter's best asset.
"The vote is coming up very rapidly. The biggest problem we have -- in my opinion -- is this kind of stuff," Cronetti said, holding up several brochures he has received in the mail from special interest groups. "They deal in innuendo and ideas, but not facts. That's what I want to have people talk about."
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Few people at the meeting, however, agreed on facts with voices raised on several occasions during the 90-minute discussion.
One of the two referendum questions ask if the county should levy a one-half cent sales surtax for a 10-year period commencing Jan. 1, 2014, with proceeds used to fund health care, including services for the indigent.
Dickie, who favors the amendment, said without money to pay for indigent care, many Manatee County residents will be without care, and taxpayers will ultimately pay a higher price if the tax boost fails.
"We'll pay through taxes, through higher (insurance) premiums," she said.
"At first, I was against it," he said. "I was paranoid."
He said Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Legislature's decision not to accept federal funds from the Affordable Health Care Act was an eye-opener.
"Once the state turns down $51 billion, that tells you something," Murray said. "We can't look for help from the state with the people in office there."
Several audience members argued against the increase, saying the county doesn't have to raise taxes until the fund runs out in 2015.
Dickie counseled against waiting, saying the county needs to start generating new revenue before the fund runs out.
Michele Garden, the clinic director at the Galvano One-Stop Center in Manatee, agreed. Any interruption in clinic services to the indigent will clog hospital emergency rooms and raise health care costs for everyone, she said.
"These are real scenarios. Without this tax, we will pay for it," she said.
Mark Manges, owner of Skybox Asset in Lakewood Ranch, remained wary of raising taxes.
"It sounds like this is premature. Once you vote for taxes, it's awful hard to get rid of them," he said.
Early voting has begun. The only polling place is at the supervisor of elections office, 600 301 Blvd. W., Suite 108. Vote weekdays, 7 a.m. to 6 p.m.; 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. June 15, and 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Election Day, June 18.
Information: 941-741-3823, or visit www.votemanatee.com.