MANATEE -- The Manatee County Commission on Tuesday OK'd a June 18 referendum date for voters to decide on a half-cent sales tax increase to finance health care for the poor.
The board voted 5-2 to stick with its original election date rather than reschedule for a later time.
The referendum involves raising the sales tax from 6.5 percent to 7 percent and generating $23 million annually. Most taxable consumer purchases over $5,000 would be exempt from the tax.
Commission Chairman Larry Bustle and Commissioners Carol Whitmore, Betsy Benac, Vanessa Baugh and John Chappie voted in favor of sticking to the referendum date. Commissioners Michael Gallen and Robin DiSabatino voted against.
The board included a 10-year sunset provision on collection of the sales tax increase, and more restrictive income requirements under which residents qualify for care.
"Simply put, this is a shell game of taxes," Dr. Richard Conard testified before the commission. "Selling it as a major tax savings is at best misleading. We expect our worst politicians to be deceptive, but not our county administration."
A young pharmacy student at Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine at Lakewood Ranch took the opposite view.
Mohammed Abdulwahhab said preventive health care has been shown to be cost-effective.
"It's our duty to care for the people that cannot care for themselves," Abdulwahhab said.
He urged the commission put the issue on the ballot without delay.
Gallen emphasized he favored a comprehensive sales tax increase but opposed a June election date. He wanted to wait until the regularly scheduled election next year to save the estimated $400,000 cost of a special election and allow time to compile a more detailed health care plan to accompany the tax increase proposal, he said.
"We needed a plan yesterday," he said.
"It's about the taxpayer dollars."
Bustle said the commissioners "get off course here when we start talking about a health care plan." He said the existing plan is a good guide for how money generated by a sales tax increase would be spent.
"We're voting on how to pay for health care," he said.
Bustle also cited the possibility a multimillion-dollar budget hole would occur by delaying the referendum, which could mean more difficult in cutting spending.
The tax hike is part of a three-pronged effort to lower property tax rates by 13 percent to 26 percent, by shifting costs to a broader base of payers, County Administrator Ed Hunzeker has said.
Until now, money generated from the sale of Manatee Memorial Hospital has paid for care for the poor but the fund will be exhausted in 2015, officials have said.
Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7031. Follow her on Twitter @sarawrites.