When mostly conservative community and business leaders historically opposed to taxes and favoring smaller government come out in support of any tax, whether a renewal of an existing one or the implementation or a new one, those viewpoints should merit thoughtful deliberation.
The November election contains two referendums critical to the future of Manatee County. One is the extension of the half-cent sales tax that provides the Manatee County School District with some $30 million annually to build a stronger educational system, an essential element to future prosperity and progress. The other referendum is a new half-cent sales tax increase designed to improve this community in significant ways.
Combined, both referenda are simply good for the community, good for business, good for employment, good for roads, good for libraries, good for economic development, good for an educated workforce, good for lifestyle-enhancing infrastructure, good in every which way one would like their community to be – a place to boast about to family and friends.
Last week, the Manatee Chamber of Commerce came out loud and clear in backing both the Manatee County infrastructure tax – a half cent – and the continuation of the Manatee County School District’s half cent, a renewal, not a new tax, a renewal. Some voters appear confused on that major point.
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On Monday, chamber President Bob Bartz outlined the organization’s position in support of both tax measures in his “Focus on Manatee” column in the Herald. His point is simple and direct: supporting taxes isn’t easy but sometimes necessary.
Last Thursday, Forward Manatee — a new organization undertaking a community campaign to educate voters on these key issues — put an exclamation point on this, urging passage of both initiatives at a kickoff event of its efforts. On Wednesday, the Lakewood Ranch Business Alliance announced its alliance with Forward Manatee on these issues.
These are all civic- and community-minded individuals who only want the best for Manatee County. A strong school system, a strong infrastructure — showing everyone outside Manatee County that the people here want the best place to live, and not a lack of resources that starves the community of a better future.
The opposition against both referenda doesn’t take into account the benefits, focusing primarily on an anti-tax position. The school’s half-cent changes nothing. That has existed since 2002 but is set to expire in 2017. It’s a renewal vote.
The county infrastructure tax? The project list is split into three components, as has been publicized. Transportation infrastructure improvements consume the largest share of the projected sales tax revenue, at almost 71 percent, or $16 million a year. The public safety and law enforcement project list focuses on the replacement and expansion of aging facilities and equipment, be that law enforcement, criminal justice, 911 and public safety, at almost $3.5 million annually. The parks and community amenities agenda also focuses on replacing and upgrading aging facilities, including parks and aquatic assets, athletic fields, playgrounds, boat ramps, nature preserves and libraries; that budget calls for $3.2 million a year.
These projects are not luxuries, nor can the county afford to fund these public priorities by simply slashing the current budget, which faces a potential budget deficit in 2018 when the general portion of the budget stabilization fund will be depleted. The county has been spending down those reserves for several years in order to maintain services and programs deemed essential.
Public accountability and transparency are a vital part of the county effort to win voter approval. In addition, a citizens oversight committee will be seated to ensure diligence is performed, and an annual audit will be conducted to present to the public to further inform residents about the credibility of the expenditures and projects.
For a resident who spends $500 a month on taxable goods and services (not food, medicine and many other consumer goods), that person would contribute only $2.50 toward education, which is already charged, and another $2.50 for country infrastructure. Visitors and tourists who shop in our stores and eat in our restaurants are big donors .
Currently, consumers — including visitors — pay 6.5 cents on the dollar for most expenditures. The county’s new levy would raise that to 7 cents. A third of that increase would be borne by visitors. Out of the estimated $22.8 million in new sales tax revenue expected annually with the half penny, visitors would contribute around $7.2 million. Manatee County residents would receive infrastructure improvements from visitors.
One dispute with the Manatee County School District tax renewal centers on punishing the system for past budgetary sins — which are no longer relevant. The district is now financially sound by Florida standards, meeting the state-mandated savings account percentage for two years in a row. This month, that significantly improved status earned an upgrade from Fitch Ratings, an international leader in credit ratings and research, raising the district from a BBB+ to an A-. That’s the second rating increase in the last two years.
As this Editorial Board has previously stated, we encourage voters consider what we believe to be the key question: What kind of future do you want for this community? Our answer: Both referenda merit passage.