Editorials

Manatee County sales tax approval — for a brighter future

Commissioner Carol Whitmore looks through a list of projects that need funding throughout the county on in June 2016 as the Manatee County Commission considers putting an infrastructure sales tax referendum on the ballot, and how those funds would be allocated.
Commissioner Carol Whitmore looks through a list of projects that need funding throughout the county on in June 2016 as the Manatee County Commission considers putting an infrastructure sales tax referendum on the ballot, and how those funds would be allocated. gjefferies@bradenton.com

Like their leadership counterparts with the Manatee County School District, county government has launched a concerted effort at voter education in support of the half-cent infrastructure sales tax referendum on the November ballot. While the school system seeks to retain the current half-cent sales tax, the county wants to add a half cent to provide a new revenue stream besides the vast reliance on property taxes to fund projects and programs — that benefit the public.

Detailed information about countywide improvement projects that would be funded with the projected $345 million in revenue over 15 years can be found via an internet link on the county website, www.mymanatee.org. This map pinpoints the locations of the public works, and a simple computer click on each will reveal information about the project.

For example, a project to upgrade 69th Street East from Ellenton-Gillette to Interstate 75 to meet current standards for travel lanes, sidewalks, bike land or trails and lighting would cost an estimated $8.4 million. The public safety complex is in line to receive $3.9 million to install the next generation of the emergency 911 system so texting would be available. Additional lifeguard towers would be constructed and current ones replaced on Anna Maria Island beaches. There are close to 200 projects listed on the site.

The project list is split into three components, as has been well publicized already. 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, as the website map demonstrates. 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.

County commissioners approved placing the half-cent sales tax increase on the ballot unanimously, illustrating the importance of this vote for the future wellbeing of our quality of life. The proposal came from the Citizens Financial Structure Advisory Board, impaneled to find solutions to the county’s revenue shortage.

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 lured 3 million visitors in 2015, injecting $1.1 billion into the economy and contributing $47 million in sales taxes, the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau reported in March.) The half cent could be directed toward leveraging bond debt to gain capital and expedite improvements. County municipalities would receive shares of this new revenue.

One important consideration is the economic development benefits as Manatee County becomes a more livable and attractive place with all these projects. The Manatee Chamber of Commerce will be on the front lines promoting the referendum, helping the county educate the public about the vital new resource for community improvements. “I think it is 8imperative for our community that this passes,” chamber president Bob Bartz told Herald county reporter Claire Aronson recently.

As this Editorial Board has stated previously, this is a thorough and thoughtful effort worthy of public approval. We encourage voters to become fully educated on this important referendum. And consider this question: What kind of future do you want for this community?

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