Tuesday's special referendum asks voters to address two pivotal tax issues in Manatee County. The half-cent sales tax issue has been generating a heated discussion in the community while the business tax exemption authority has been far less contentious.
The ballot language states:
Countywide Indigent Care One-Half Cent Sales Surtax For Health Care Services To Qualified Residents
"Shall Manatee County levy a countywide one-half cent sales surtax for a ten year period commencing January 1, 2014? The proceeds of the sales surtax shall be used to fund health care services for Manatee County residents, including elderly persons and children, who are indigent or medically poor. Such services shall include primary and preventative care by physicians, clinics, hospitals, mental health centers and alternative delivery sites in a cost effective manner."
The county's health care trust fund, established in 1984 with proceeds from the sale of Manatee Memorial Hospital, will be depleted in 2015.
The sales tax increase -- from 6.5 percent to 7 percent, equal to neighboring counties -- will raise an estimated $23 million annually to pay for indigent and poor health care.
Currently, the county spends $14 million a year in property taxes and $9 million from the health care fund. By replacing property tax revenue with sales tax money, the county can afford to reduce property taxes -- an integral part of county Administrator Ed Hunzeker's plan. His budget recommendation with that pledge can be found at www.mymanatee.org/2014budget.
The county needs to begin collecting the half-penny sales tax in 2014 in order to be assured of a new source of health care money. Then, during the summer of 2014, the county can assemble the fiscal year 2014-2015 budget based on the new revenue -- and not have to consider raising property taxes.
The Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare, will not solve Manatee's indigent care problem at this time. ACA is not universal health care, it's an insurance program. Indigents cannot afford health care policies. The expansion of Medicaid under ACA would have helped them, but to date Florida has rejected that approach.
Manatee County cannot sit on the sidelines and wait for Florida's House to come to its senses and embrace expansion as the Senate and governor have.
Federal law requires hospitals to provide care for the poor, often in expensive emergency rooms. Hunzeker's plan emphasizes primary and preventive services, early intervention, health education and case management to drive down costs.
Should the sales tax issue fail, the prospects of a property tax increase loom. Hospitals must still be reimbursed -- and only at a small fraction of the costs.
We recommend approval of the half-cent sales tax.
Economic Development Ad Valorem Tax Exemptions
"Shall the Board of County Commissioners of this County be authorized to grant, pursuant to Section 3, Article VII of the State Constitution, property tax exemptions to new businesses and expansions of existing businesses that are expected to create new, full-time jobs in the county?"
By granting EDATE authority to the county commission, voters will be arming officials with another tool to grow jobs in new and existing businesses.
Florida created this tax relief program so local governments could nurture their economies.
Manatee is surrounded by counties that already offer this key incentive. Our economic development officials are at a competitive disadvantage and only seek a level playing field.
Commissioners would not dole out this ad valorem tax abatement in a haphazard manner. Companies must qualify -- by offering jobs that pay about the county average.
Those jobs must be in a high-impact sector with high-skill positions. The number of jobs also figures into the amount of the abatement, which can stretch over 10 years.
Applications will be vetted. Businesses will be held accountable on an annual basis, receiving an exemption only after proving worthy.
Only the county's portion of the property tax would be reduced, not the school district's and other entities.
With most Florida counties taking advantage of this powerful incentive, Manatee County loses when business executives and site selection consultants automatically ignore places that don't offer this program.
We recommend passage of the Economic Development Ad Valorem Tax Exemptions..