An open seat on the School Board of Manatee County holds increasing weight as the board takes steps toward holding a special election next March on raising taxes.
Board members supporting a special election say the district needs to ask the public for more tax revenue to boost teacher salaries. The lone opponent — board member John Colon — says people are sick of hearing the district ask for money.
But based on who Gov. Rick Scott appoints to fill the seat left open by the resignation of Karen Carpenter, Colon may not be so lonely in his objection for long.
Colon — originally a Scott appointee himself — said he has been interviewing applicants and will be recommending Scott appoint health care CEO Scott Hopes to the position.
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And Colon is pretty confident in his sway in Tallahassee.
“The last two recommendations I made both got the appointment,” Colon said.
Hopes is the chairman and CEO of CliniLinc, a health care consulting firm based in Ireland and Florida. He also worked as a teacher and department chair in Hillsborough County for two years, and he is a likely ally for Colon in the fight over a tax increase.
On Monday, Hopes said he opposes raising taxes without taking a hard look at cutting costs, and he questioned the board’s decision to issue $150 million in bonds for the construction of three new schools.
“It appears that the board has been not reluctant to go after tax dollars and then to bond those dollars and use up debt capacity,” Hopes said. “It may be why someone came up with the idea that we should raise taxes again.”
Board members Charlie Kennedy, Gina Messenger and David Miner all said they had not interviewed any of the 14 applicants for the open seat.
“I’d be flattered if the governor were to ask my thoughts,” Miner said.
Later this summer the board will consider a resolution to hold a March 2018 special election to raise the tax rate by one mill. A mill is worth $1 per every $1,000 of home value, and the first $25,000 of the home value is exempt. The current school millage rate in the county is 6.92. District officials say an increase by one mill would cost the average home owner about $200 each year and net the district $30 million annually.
Board Chairman Kennedy and member Miner have voiced strong support for a millage-rate increase special election. Messenger supported the move but had concerns about the optics of spending $250,000 on a special election, especially if it failed.
Messenger said Monday she believes the increase will be a win-win for the district. With more money, the school day can be extended and students receive more time in core classes while teacher pay increases as well.
But should Hopes or any opponent of raising taxes land on the board, it is likely Messenger will be seen as the most swingable vote. She has said often she does not make up her mind before vote,s and public input and board discussion factor heavily in her decision making.
“I think it would be foolish for me to think that only I had the right answer. I don’t think the community has had time to respond on how they would feel,” Messenger said. “That’s part of my role — to go in with that open mind and listen to their views.”
Hopes ran for Florida Senate in 2012 to represent Hendry, Collier, Miami-Dade and Monroe counties, but he lost in the general election. He led a task force in Jeb Bush’s administration, analyzing Florida’s certificate-of-need for healthcare centers.
He is also a previous Scott appointee. In 2013 Scott appointed Hopes to the University of South Florida’s Board of Trustees, and Hopes is a governor’s appointee to the State Executive Committee of the Republican Party of Florida and chairman of the Appointee’s Caucus of the Republican Party of Florida.
Campaign finance records show Hopes donated $5,000 to “Let’s Get to Work,” a political group supporting Scott’s 2014 campaign, and Hopes gave $1,000 to Scott’s 2010 campaign.
Colon said he had not spoken specifically with Hopes about the issue of increasing the millage rate.
“We’re friends, and we have some similar thoughts on things, but there are going to be certain areas where we don’t align,” Colon said.
While Colon is confident in the power of his recommendation, he might not be backing the applicant on who most insiders say is the odds-on favorite: Charles Tokarz, the chief financial officer of Medallion Home and business partner with Scott-ally Carlos Beruff, has applied for the position as well.
Tokarz did not respond to a phone call Monday requesting comment, but he will be interviewing with Commissioner of Education Pam Stewart for the position this week in Tallahassee, along with former school board candidate Misty Servia and physician Richard Conard.
Hopes said he interviewed with Stewart last week.