County administrator pushes for half-cent sales tax vote

A handful of people brushed off raindrops June 5 to hear the benefits of voting in favor of a half-cent sales tax increase proposed on a June 18 countywide ballot.

Manatee County administrator Ed Hunzeker explained the benefits of supporting the tax at a town hall meeting in Holmes Beach.

Hunzeker said the tax stemmed from a discussion that occurred at the county level about who pays for county government.

“Sixty percent of county government is put back on people who own property,” he said. “That’s different from most counties. To put that much of the cost on one group of people is strange and inappropriate.”

Hunzeker alluded to the premise that should voters pass the half-cent sales tax, Manatee County property taxes could decrease by 23 percent in municipalities and by 13 percent in unincorporated areas of the county.

“We started looking at why do we do that when other revenue streams are available to government in order not to put a burden on property taxpayers,” he said.

In 1984, the county sold Manatee Memorial Hospital with the proceeds going toward helping to pay for indigent health care. That money will run out in 2015, and only a portion of those funds are used while the remainder of the balance is paid through property taxes.

Last year, the county paid about $24 million in health care costs. About $9 million was used from the hospital sale fund while more than $14 million was supported by property owners.

“When I first arrived in 2006, an indigent health care task force was formed and they came to me in 2007 to request a half-cent sales tax increase,” said Hunzeker. “I told them, ‘Good luck.’”

Hunzeker said the timing wasn’t right in 2007.

“I told them they have a solution in search of a problem,” he said. “We had not engaged the community in a discussion.”

Hunzeker said the following year a study was done that showed challenges in the county’s health care system and those challenges have led to increasing costs.

“There are basically three big ticket items that are making up the $24 million,” he said. “One is when people go to jail, we have to pay for their health care. The other is Medicaid match, which we are required to pay. The last big thing is that we fund a portion of uncompensated services from people that show up and can’t pay.”

Hunzeker said it’s important for voters to understand that indigent health care isn’t about people who are too lazy to get a job. He said poor people are usually on state or federal programs to help them pay their medical costs.

“It’s the working poor we are talking about here,” he said. “People that have jobs and, because they have jobs, they don’t qualify for help. Or maybe their employer had to cut health insurance during the economic downturn. That’s the people we are talking about. So this mental picture about some slacker smoking and drinking and too lazy to work isn’t what we are necessarily talking about when we say indigent care.”

Hunzeker said once the county understood that a half-cent sales tax increase would generate about $23 million a year, it was clear that a rare occurrence of creating a tax to get tax relief was possible.

“You pass this tax, you get a tax cut,” he told the gallery of mostly island city residents and officials.

The idea is to spread the costs of health care across the board to everyone in the county, instead of the property owners who now pay the lion’s share. That moved Hunzeker to look at other aspects of the county tax bill that he said are off balance.

“There’s other pieces of the puzzle,” he said. “One of the things is the sheriff’s office budget.”

Hunzeker said the $95 million MCSO budget includes $28 million in patrol service, and not every city uses MCSO patrol services, “but they still pay for it.”

He also pointed out that unincorporated areas of the county don’t pay a utility franchise fee, which could also allow lowering property taxes.

His budget plan, if the tax is approved, will include charging unincorporated residents a utility franchise fee on top of the sales tax increase, although unincorporated residents will still save money.

“When we started this process and began looking at changing who pays for government, you look at winners and losers,” he said, noting virtually every time government makes a decision there are both.

“But I couldn’t figure out who the losers are in this scenario,” he said.

Hunzeker said approving the sales tax increase will create only good things for the county and its residents.

“The good side is that we solve our community health care crisis, reduce property taxes, diversify the county revenues, allow more families to apply for mortgages and it’s a better allocation of the sheriff’s office budget.”

Hunzeker told the gallery that if passed, the sales tax would only be used to pay for indigent health care.

“We can’t do anything with it but health care,” he said.

If passed, Hunzeker said Manatee County would have the second lowest property taxes in the region.

“We already have the lowest water, garbage and other things,” he said. “It will be a bargain to live here.”

If it doesn’t pass, Hunzeker said the county commissioners face a challenge in overcoming the $9 million health care fund that runs out in 2015.

“Instead of a tax reduction, the talk will be about a tax increase,” he said. “We don’t have a way to solve that $9 million. The thing about the sales tax is that everybody pays it, including the people who are getting the indigent care. They buy stuff. Visitors buy stuff. Everybody buys something and everybody pays.”

Currently, Manatee County sales tax is 6.5 percent and Manatee is the only county in the area collecting less than 7 percent.

According to IRS tax tables, the average family will pay $52-$64 more a year in sales tax. The increase would take effect Jan. 1, 2014, if the referendum passes.

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