Manatee County votes Tuesday on sales tax referendum to fund indigent health care

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Residents in Manatee County will vote Tuesday whether to fund emergency health care for the poor with a half-penny sales tax hike. Mary Ruiz is the president and CEO of a non-profit mental health and addiction center that treats uninsured people. She’s worried that if voters reject the plan, some people will go without life-saving health services.

“What the half penny sales tax represents is a plan to continue crisis health services for people who are the working poor who don’t have insurance. One out of five people in Manatee County are uninsured – even though they’re working, they’re uninsured.”

If approved, the sales tax in Manatee County would climb from 6.5% to 7%. It’s meant to bridge a gap that would be left by an expiring trust fund that has provided $9 million to indigent health services for nearly 3 decades. Nicholas Azzara is the information and outreach coordinator for Manatee County.

“That $9 million fund came about from the sale of Manatee Memorial Hospital in 1984. That fund is almost depleted – in 2015 it’s expected to be completely exhausted.”

If voters approve the referendum, it’s likely the commission will reduce property taxes. Jonathan Fleece is with the Healthy Manatee, the political action committee working to get the referendum approved by voters.

“The sales tax will generate roughly $25 million in revenue. There is a $9 million shortfall for healthcare services when this trust fund runs out in 2015. So, that leaves – give or take – $13-14 million in excess. That excess revenue from sales tax is going to be applied to reducing property tax in Manatee County.”

Fleece and other supporters use that as a talking point to gain support from people on the fence. He also points out that one third of the county’s sales tax revenue comes from tourists. Those claims prompted Tea Party Manatee to release a video on YouTube urging residents to vote against the sales tax referendum.

A spokesperson for Tea Party Manatee did not respond to an interview request. Their video goes on to say the referendum has very little to do with property taxes. Azzara, the outreach coordinator for Manatee County, said there are arguments for both sides.

“Because we can’t say for certain which way the county commission will vote. I will say that during those spring workshops – we’ve got a very fiscally conservative county commission and they made it clear that they did not want to grow local government and to that extent they relied on assurances from the county administrator that his proposed budget would include an offsetting property tax relief to offset the new sales tax revenues.”

A flier was sent out by the political action committee Manatee Against Taxation that linked the tax to providing funds for abortion. Healthy Manatee’s Mary Ruiz said that is not true.

“These indigent care funds supplied by the county never have supported abortion and never will. These are for crisis life saving services. Any elective procedure of any kind is not eligible.”

And even county employees including Azzara refute the claim that county funds could be used to fund abortions.

“No taxpayer dollars can be used to fund an abortion any more than they could be used to fund plastic surgery. It’s not for optional services. These are for medically necessary procedures and emergencies only.”

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Instead, Ruiz who heads the non-profit mental health center Manatee Glens said the money would make sure groups like hers could provide things like substance abuse detox and suicide intervention. Ruiz added the funding would also reimburse some emergency room visits.

“People who present in the emergency room with serious medical issues and they may be admitted or they may be treated in the emergency room.”

The referendum could be challenged by some more liberal voters because sales tax increases are considered regressive. But Healthy Manatee’s Fleece claims even though the cost is shifted from just property owners to all consumers, it still would likely impact wealthier individuals more.

“But, there’s more than likely a correlation to higher earners, higher socioeconomic class residents more than likely buy more products.”

Early voting was open from June 8 until the 15. Tuesday is the final day for residents to cast their votes. Also on the ballot is a tax abatement question that would lower taxes for small businesses in the area depending on how many jobs they create.