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Gallen Voices Concerns of


BRADENTON – Manatee County Commissioner Michael Gallen has sent two emails to County Administrator Ed Hunzeker regarding concerns that citizens are being misled regarding the June 18 referendum to add a half-cent sales tax to fund indigent healthcare programs. Gallen cited direct mail, videos and text being disseminated by a group calling itself Healthy Manatee, as well as the county's own materials, to illustrate how easily voters could erroneously get the impression that a vote for the referendum equates to a vote for property tax cuts.

Gallen (D-dist. 2) supports funding indigent care programs once the corpus established by the county's sale of Manatee Memorial Hospital expires. However, the attorney and former Lakewood Ranch High School teacher has also voiced strong concerns over the hastened schedule to put the issue before voters. In fact, after voting in favor of it, he unsuccessfully led an effort to push the referendum back until the 2014 primary elections. As much as he'd like to see the county find a way to fund indigent healthcare programs, Gallen says he's worried that taxpayers could vote based on an incorrect belief that property tax relief is part of the equation. Gallen said Hunzeker has not responded to either inquiry.

Commissioner Michael Gallen

In his first email, Gallen points out that the board has not formed a consensus to lower property taxes should the referendum pass, while noting that Healthy Manatee explicitly makes that claim. Gallen also questioned the information presented on the Manatee County site, saying, “Our website also focuses on tax relief. I realize that we are more careful with our language - arguably we are implying tax relief however.”

During the March 12 meeting, at which the board voted 4-3 to put the issue before voters in a referendum, Hunzeker answered commissioner concerns regarding rushed timing by referring to both the need to start collecting the tax in January of 2014 and the ability of his staff to include property tax cuts in their upcoming budget proposals, describing it as a “cost-shift” and explaining that the county would be "trading out revenue sources in order to reduce property taxes."

During two more meetings at which the board first voted to draft an ordinance to delay the referendum until 2014, then failed to pass it, Hunzeker answered questions on refining the indigent health care plan by noting that it could be changed as often as the board decided, explaining that the vote was not committing them to the current plan, but did preserve the ability to include the tax cuts in the upcoming budget, again making it seem to many as if the vote had at least as much to do with lowering property taxes as funding indigent care, if not more.

State statutes do not allow local half-cent sales taxes to be used for property tax relief, but they can be used to fund indigent healthcare programs. Hunzeker has said that the sales tax will provide more revenues than are needed to replace the expiring corpus and that he will present the board with a budget proposal that includes reductions in property tax millage that will equate to “about $65 a year per household for a typical home with a taxable value of $150,000."

The county website repeats this figure in noting that property taxes “in turn, could be reduced” by the sales tax, and also uses phrases like "the corresponding property tax reduction," which could very easily, as Commissioner Gallen noted, give the impression that one is tied to the other.

If the relationship between the two is suggested by the county, it is outright advertised by Health Manatee PC, a group whose website and campaign materials explicitly make the connection repeatedly.

At the top of its home page, Healthy Manatee says the half-penny is "an opportunity to reduce Manatee’s property taxes by $14 million annually, which means cutting your own property tax bill by up to 26%." Under its Did You Know section, the site falsely claims that residents must pay for indigent health care and will simply have to pay higher taxes without the half-penny. It also claims that "without the half-penny, health care costs will likely increase. Emergency room wait times will grow. Doctors won’t want to practice here. Services will probably be cut."

Meanwhile, Hunzeker has been busily appearing at local venues to explain, or arguably promote, the half-penny sales tax option. Manatee County Commissioner Robin DiSabatino, who voted against putting the referendum on the ballot, said she was also concerned about voters being misled. DiSabatino emphasized that not only was the board not bound to lower millage rates were the half-cent to pass, but that even if property taxes were lowered, this or future boards could always raise millage for something like law enforcement or other essential services.

“I'm worried that voters might think it's one thing, but end up getting something else,” said DiSabatino. “The half-cent isn't tied to tax relief and even if rates were lowered one year, they could always be raised the next, while tax payers are still committed to paying the half-cent sales tax. If that happens, it's going to look like a bait and switch.”


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