MANATEE -- Voters nixed a half-cent sales tax increase to finance health care for the poor during a special election Tuesday, with more than 60 percent voting "no."
The ballot question failed with 23,710, or 60.81 percent voting "no," compared with 15,280, or 39.18 percent voting "yes," with all 99 precincts counted, according to the Manatee Supervisor of Elections website.So, what happens next?
Tea Party Manatee opposed the tax hike, and President Steve Vernon was jubilant after the decisive vote.
"It's really a wonderful, empowering thing to citizens when they realize that when they unite, and they form organizational coalitions and neighborhood alliances, they can overcome big money and special interests, and that is a very meaningful point in this day and age," said Vernon.
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He credited use of "new media" such as Twitter, Facebook and e-mail in helping to get his organization's message across.
Vernon said Tea Party members now plan to attend more county commission meetings, and will become more involved.
"We want the people to have the power here, and not the special interests," Ver
Pat Glass, a former county commissioner who led the political committee Healthy Manatee in backing the sales surtax, said: "We will get together and work on a new strategy. This stuff is never going to go away."
Glass said the failed referendum item was a bold, new initiative to try to solve the budget problem.
"But the main thing was to take care of the people who need it," she said. "We can't let it go. It's easy for somebody to run a campaign and count up the mailers, but when it's all said and done, it still rests with the community."
Manatee County Commissioner Michael Gallen called for "an efficient and effective plan" to provide health care to the poor in a way that saves taxpayer dollars. Gallen favored the sales tax increase, but sought a more comprehensive plan to guide how money from the surtax was spent. He also had opposed the summer election date, saying it was too expensive and too soon.
Commissioner Carol Whitmore had been a staunch supporter of the sales tax increase and the summer election date.
"The voters spoke," she said late Tuesday. "And that's what the commission did: We wanted to hear from the citizens because we were in the process of doing the budget, and now, we'll just work with the outcome of the vote, and (County Administrator) Mr. (Ed) Hunzeker will present us a budget without it."
"The people decided, and we'll have a revised budget when we come back from break," said Whitmore.
In Hunzeker's $517.8 million proposed budget, he recommended shifting the cost of health care away from property taxpayers to a broader range of payers such as tourists, renters, even the poor contributing to their own care.
The surtax would have generated $23 million annually, and along with it, Hunzeker recommended the commission adopt a utility franchise fee would that would generate $16.3 million, and approve a $29.4 million transfer of sheriff's patrol costs from municipal residents to those in unincorporated areas.
Under the plan, the amount of money spent on health care would have remained the same; what would have changed would have been who paid for it, Hunzeker told commissioners.
The Manatee Chamber of Commerce was an early and avid supporter of the sales surtax and its leaders Tuesday expressed disappointment at the vote outcome.
Neil Spirtas, vice president for small business and public policy, said the chamber is committed to finding other solutions to what he called a financial crisis.
"And we'll continue to make health care a high priority," he said.
Dr. Richard Conard, retired founder of what is now Blake Medical Center and an influential voice recommending a no vote, said the community will have to "come together and work in a cooperative fashion to deal effectively with this challenge."
He said he was "saddened" by the cost of the election, estimated at upward of $750,000, including between $300,000 and $400,000 for the cost of the referendum, plus monies expended on each side to lobby voters.
"We created battle lines, and now we have battle wounds that have to heal because we need to deal with our health care problem," Conard said.
The election went off without a snag with 39,087 voters turning out, or about 18 percent of the electorate, said Manatee Supervisor of Elections Mike Bennett.
Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7031. Follow her on Twitter @sarawrites.