Manatee County Administrator
As you form an opinion on the health care surtax before the June 18 referendum, you should begin with several facts.
First, know county government is now paying for community health care costs to the tune of about $24 million each year. It’s a necessary expense that goes to pay for inmate medical expenses, a state-mandated matching Medicaid payment to the state, mental health and substance abuse treatment and to partially reimburse local hospitals and physicians for the care provided to the working poor in our community.
A second important point to consider is that we already pay for these costs using about $14 million a year in property taxes and $9 million from a dwindling health care fund that currently sits at about $20 million. For the better part of 30 years, Manatee County has had the good fortune to supplement its local health care costs with a fund that came about when the county sold Manatee Memorial Hospital in 1984.
That fund will expire in 2015 and county commissioners have said they’re not willing to risk jeopardizing quality health care access in Manatee.
With very few options, the commission opted to allow voters to decide whether to impose a half-cent sales tax that can only be spent on community health care costs. A family of two with an annual income of $40,000-$50,000 will pay about $52 more in sales tax per year based on IRS tables.
So why a sales tax? First of all, it’s one way to ask the entire community — and visitors to Manatee County — to pay rather than asking property owners to foot the entire bill. What’s more, a sales tax will bring in almost enough to cover all indigent health care costs, so the county can reduce its reliance on property taxes and, as proposed in next year’s budget, lower property taxes, especially for homeowners on the island.
Lower property tax rates are certainly welcome news for any local homeowner, but they also will mean Manatee County no longer has one of the higher county property tax rates on the Gulf Coast. Lower property taxes will no doubt make Manatee County more attractive to businesses looking to relocate. Not only that, lower property taxes will allow more local families to qualify for home mortgages — a boon for any local economy.
From the county’s point of view, the sales tax will diversify revenues, which could easily improve its credit ratings. That means better interest rates with which to invest taxpayers’ money whenever the county has to borrow for necessary projects, such as replacing our aging public safety radio system.
Many people ask me why we’re headed to referendum now when the health care fund doesn’t expire for another two years.
But to wait until the next regular election — a primary in 2014 — would mean my office would have to plan the fiscal 2015 budget using a higher property tax rate in order to cover the expiring $9 million. Voters would head to the polls to consider taxing themselves after receiving a TRIM notice with higher property rates.
Several have said the county should simply wait for the federal health care overhaul to be implemented in hopes that it will cover these costs. If that were to happen, we have to assume that Congress will appropriate federal funding to implement Obamacare.
I shouldn’t have to remind you that Congress has shown no inclination to help the president carry out his plans for health care. Even if Washington gets its act together, the Florida Legislature was clear that its not willing to expand Medicaid as proposed under the federal plan. Waiting on Obamacare is a huge gamble that I’m not willing to take.
If we eventually discover that community health care costs are not a local burden, the half-cent sales tax could be reduced or eliminated by a simple majority vote of the county commission. And the money can only be spent on health care, so it would be extremely impractical to continue collecting the half-cent if it’s not needed.
We are not trying to grow government as some have suggested. In fact, if approved by voters, the total cost to run Manatee County government, including taxes, fees, water and sewer will be lower than neighboring counties.
There is no increase in government spending as a result of the referendum. We’re simply trying to change the way we’re paying for indigent health care costs.
We are planning into the future to assure the quality of life for our children and our children’s children.
Note: Readers can learn more about the June 18 referendum by attending a 7 p.m. Wednesday, June 5, meeting at Holmes Beach City Hall, where Hunzeker will discuss the county commission’s proposed half-cent sales tax increase and tax breaks for new businesses, or online at www.mymanatee.org/halfcent.