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Manatee County launches education campaign for sales tax

Cars travel in the 3100 block of 43rd Street West in Bradenton. A sales tax referendum to pay for county infrastructure will be on November's ballot. The revenue will go toward transportation, public safety and law enforcement and parks and community facilities. An estimated $15.9 million would go toward improvements along 43rd Street West between 36th Avenue West to 9th Avenue West. The improvement is an upgrade to the current standards for travel lanes, sidewalks, bike lanes (or trail) and lighting.
Cars travel in the 3100 block of 43rd Street West in Bradenton. A sales tax referendum to pay for county infrastructure will be on November's ballot. The revenue will go toward transportation, public safety and law enforcement and parks and community facilities. An estimated $15.9 million would go toward improvements along 43rd Street West between 36th Avenue West to 9th Avenue West. The improvement is an upgrade to the current standards for travel lanes, sidewalks, bike lanes (or trail) and lighting. gjefferies@bradenton.com

A north-south connector in West Bradenton could get a facelift should Manatee County’s half-cent infrastructure sales tax pass this November.

An estimated $15.9 million in improvements is proposed for 43rd Street West, between 36th Avenue West to Ninth Avenue West, to bring the road to current standards for travel lanes, sidewalks, bike lanes or trail and lighting. This road is just one of a number of improvements that have been laid out by the county that can be completed with the additional revenue source in place.

With impact fees not eligible to be used to repair existing assets, a 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 as the county faces a deficit come 2018.

Approximately 71 percent of the revenue would go toward transportation projects, 15 percent would be for public safety and law enforcement and 14 percent would be for parks/community amenities.

Officials estimate the sales tax would generate $23 million a year.

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Click image for Manatee County Penny Tax Projects website

Now that the commission has unanimously voted to ask residents to approve the half-cent sales tax referendum when they go to the polls for the Nov. 8 election, the focus has shifted to educating the public on the improvements that could be funded with the revenue generated.

While they can’t advocate for the passage of the sales tax, the county has already launched into the education component by creating a map that shows residents where the planned improvements would take place. As of 3 p.m. Friday, the Supervisor of Elections Office had not received any paperwork for a political action committee, which could advocate for the passage of the sales tax.

“This is a map where people can see where projects are in relation to their neighborhood or commission district,” county spokesman Nick Azzara said. “Before they can go into the ballot box, the hope is you familiarize yourself with the map and see where these projects will be and make a better informed decision in November. The resources that are spent are educational and informational at this point. That is what we are focusing on this summer, information to the public to make a well-informed decision.”

The county is also working on an dedicated website and has had conversations with other counties that have recently asked voters to approve a sales tax, according to Azzara.

“You want it to be easy to find,” he said. “I think if we are able to hone in on some of the larger projects and see a large sign at the intersection saying what the proposed improvements are at the location and for more information, visit short URL.”

Public education is what this is going to be all about, Commission Chairwoman Vanessa Baugh said.

“The public cannot make a good decision unless they know what we intend to do if the sales tax passes,” said Baugh, who doesn’t plan to advocate one way or another. “Any way that we can find a way to get out to the people to try to educate them it is extremely important. It is an important decision and it is one the public needs to make themselves.”

While commissioners are allowed to individually advocate for the sales tax’s passage, Baugh said she doesn’t plan to do so.

“I don’t want to sway the residents one way or another. It is solely for residents to decide,” Baugh said. “If I am asked, I will certainly try to get the information that they need. This is strictly for the community to decide.”

Creating the project map

In April when the commission initially gave its first OK to the proposed sales tax hike, commissioners asked staff to draft a list of projects that would be funded with the additional revenue.

After the county finalized the project list with the commission, county staff along with property management interns created a “story map” over the period of three weeks.

“It is really helpful to see where these things are at and how they are dispersed throughout the county,” John Osborne, county planning official, said. “It isn’t just any one area that has a focus.”

The list of projects came from looking at the Capital Improvement Program along with conversations with the department directors, according to Osborne.

“These are the things we’ve had on the list of our things to do,” he said. “We just have never had the financial resources to do them. ... Sidewalks is the longest list. We just never had the money to install sidewalks. The list long exceeds our amount of financial resources.”

With the county’s most recent sales tax referendum for health care failing in 2013, transparency is most important, Baugh said, adding that there would be a citizens oversight committee.

“It is very, very important that they understand what the money is needed for, what we will use it for and that they also understand that there will be a committee and audits done every year to make sure it is done properly,” she said.

Manatee Chamber’s support of sales tax

While not planning to allocate financial resources to the promotion of the sales tax’s passage, Manatee Chamber of Commerce, which supports both the county and school sales tax referenda, will be helping educate the public, according to chamber president Bob Bartz.

“If you think the issue is important to the future of the community, that pretty much sums it up,” Bartz said of why they will be speaking to the chamber’s 2,150 member organizations that employ approximately 76,000 individuals. “There is no sense keeping it to yourself if you have strong feelings like that.”

The chamber will be using emails, meetings and newsletters to educate its members about the sales tax, Bartz said, adding that the chamber’s board of directors voted to support the initiatives.

“I think it is imperative for our community that this passes,” he said. “There are other alternatives but it doesn’t meet the financial demands. I am really starting to see some of the infrastructure falling in disrepair and it is nothing something we can necessarily be proud of like we used to.”

Pointing to Manatee County Sheriff Office’s needs coupled with that of the county’s public works department, Bartz said it appears to the chamber that the county’s infrastructure is being stressed.

“If we want to maintain the quality of life that many people enjoy today, we have to have more revenues to maintain the infrastructure and improve upon it,” he said. “You can only put Band-Aids on so long.”

Claire Aronson: 941-745-7024, @Claire_Aronson

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