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Manatee commissioners give first OK to proposed sales tax hike

Manatee commission hears half-cent sales tax recommendation

The Citizens Financial Structure Advisory Board presented its recommendation to the county commission on Tuesday that a half-cent sales tax would address the county's funding issue.
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The Citizens Financial Structure Advisory Board presented its recommendation to the county commission on Tuesday that a half-cent sales tax would address the county's funding issue.

MANATEE -- A recommendation for a half-cent sales tax to address Manatee County government's funding needs moved a step forward Tuesday.

While the county commission didn't vote to put the referendum on the ballot, they voted to continue the discussion on the recommendation. The motion, which passed 6-1 with Commissioner Robin DiSabatino dissenting, included scheduling a meeting with the school board as soon as possible, having county staff draft a list of projects that would be funded with the additional revenue, developing a timeline and beginning the conversations with the cities since a portion of the revenue would be allocated to them.

"This is the time that we need to lead," Commissioner John Chappie said. "This is an important step. ... This is a community issue. This is a quality of life issue. We need to open our minds. We need to move forward. We need to lead."

The Citizens Financial Structure Advisory Board, which was tasked with addressing the county's funding issues, presented its recommendation to the county commission Tuesday.

With a potential deficit looming in 2018, a half-cent sales tax, which could be used to leverage the issuance of debt to finance improvements, would generate enough to address transportation, public safety and parks/community amenity needs.

"I think everybody would have loved to come in here and said everything is great and we don't need to do anything," said Mac Carraway, the advisory board's appointed leader. "This was not a predetermined outcome by any means."

The committee recommended that 65 percent of the revenue generated from the proposed half-cent sales tax be spent on transportation, 14 percent on public safety, 13 percent on parks and community amenities and 8 percent for contingency.

But before the commissioners take action to put the recommendation on the November ballot, they are stressing the importance of hearing from the public. A little less than three years ago, Manatee voters rejected a proposal to increase the sales tax for health care.

"That is the most important thing," Commission Chairwoman Vanessa Baugh said of public feedback. "That is why, I think you know, we had the advisory committee. We wanted the public looking at our budget. We all know we have funding issues but there are some things that we just don't have funds to be able to do. ...This is serious stuff. It is real issues. We need to be open-minded but at the same time when I say open minded we need to be smart and make sure that the public wants this done."

Commissioner Betsy Benac echoed Baugh.

"You've got to hear from the public what they want," Benac said. "If this is going to have any chance at all, we are going to have to do the same thing. We are going to have to show people exactly what it is they are going to get for their money if they are willing to do this."

While the commission wants to hear from the various groups that were represented on the committee as well as the public, the sense of urgency needs to be maintained, Commissioner Larry Bustle said.

"We don't want to slow this process down," he said.

On Tuesday, school board chair Karen Carpenter said the county had reached out to schedule a meeting and they were looking at meeting on May 3 at 1:30 p.m. Board member John Colon said he wasn't sure if the board would want to tie the school sales tax extension in with a county sales tax.

"I don't know if that's the best thing in the world," Colon said. "That may hurt us."

Board chair Bob Gause brought up the failed county healthcare sales tax proposal as an example of how easy it is for a sales tax proposal to be defeated.

The county has to figure out how to maintain the quality of life, Benac said.

"You can only kick this can down the road so long, and I don't believe that's my job as a county commissioner to just say, 'Hey, OK, thanks so much for this. We will just keep operating the way we are,'" she said.

There is a lot work that needs to be done in the county but there is no money to do it, Commissioner Carol Whitmore said. "We are at a critical point this next budget. We have to do something to pay for those 40,000 extra people that came"

The Manatee County School Board is expected to go to voters this fall for the renewal of its half-cent sales tax, which sunsets in 2017. If the commission also elects to put its half-cent sales tax on the ballot with the school board and passes, it wouldn't go into effect until January 2018.

"By tying yourself in with them, you are tying in with this mess that they came up with," Linda Schaich, who is running for school board, told the commission Tuesday.

Some commissioners also had pause with tying the county with the school board.

"I don't think we should be tied in with them whatsoever," DiSabatino said. "The citizens are angry about the school board tying the referendum with impact fees. I don't have any faith with that part passing. I don't want that to jeopardize us."

Commissioner Charles Smith said he has some concerns with partnering with the school board.

"We cannot be put in a position where we compromise what we have to do," Smith said. "If we think it will (pass), we stay with them but we cannot take the county down that road."

Claire Aronson, Manatee County reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7024. Follow her on Twitter@Claire_Aronson.

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