Franklin County voters now have something to look forward to this Election Day.
They will be asked to decide whether the county ought to levy an additional half-cent sales tax, to go to fund medically indigent care for county residents.
If passed with a simple majority vote, and after commissioners agree on an accompanying ordinance, beginning in 2014 the half-cent would bring in at least $800,000, based on state estimates for the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2014.
The decision by the county commissioners to place the matter on the ballot came after a discussion at the Aug. 20 meeting, begun at the budget workshop even earlier, with County Attorney Michael Shuler focusing on the rules surrounding shifting the current half-million dollar subsidy of the county ambulance service out of property tax money.
Under questioning from Commissioner Pinki Jackel, who asked for a clarification of guidelines surrounding existing taxes, such as the 1 percent health care tax, Shuler said his answer remained the same as the one he provided when first asked the question a year ago at the 2012 budget workshop.
“You gave only a quick opinion,” she said.
“It’s only allowed to be used to operate the hospital or build a new hospital,” he said, adding that the interlocal agreements, signed with both Apalachicola and Carrabelle to enable the tax to be collected in those cities’ jurisdictions and turned over to the county, further clarify its specific use.
“Without agreement you don’t have funding for a hospital at all,” said Shuler.
Jackel indicated she didn’t fully understand why there was “a disconnect between the referendum and interlocal agreements.”
The interlocal agreements are necessary for the county to get nearly 30 percent of the estimated $1.6 million that will be brought in this year by the one percent health care sales tax. Apalachicola brings about 19 percent of the total take, or $302,000, and Carrabelle 11 percent, or $182,000. The remaining 70 percent came from businesses in the county’s unincorporated areas.
Shuler said the additional half-cent medically indigent tax, which is only available to be levied by Franklin because it is a small county, would only go so far towards any other end.
‘There’s not enough generated by the half cent to do everything you want to do,” he said. “The monies generated are insufficient to do operational cost and do other infrastructure.”
The attorney said going to the ballot box would cost $12,000, twice the cost of mailing out ballots, and pressed the commissioners to make a decision swiftly if they desired to meet the Supervisor of Elections deadline. The commissioners now must pass an ordinance by Oct. 1 that, if the half-cent is OK’d by voters, would enable the money to be collected beginning Jan. 1, 2014.
“She (Ida Elliott) needs about 90 days,” said Shuler. “I’m asking you to authorize the supervisor of elections to do what she needs to do. If the voters don’t approve by the deadline, the ordinance is null and void.”
Commissioner Noah Lockley moved, and Smokey Parrish seconded, holding the referendum. It passed 4-1, with Jackel objecting.
“I am opposed to a further tax burden on the people of Franklin County at this time,” she said. “We’re going up a half-mill on the ad valorem tax and I understand most of the rationale for this. but this is a tax that will affect every taxpayer in the county.
“I understand that every taxpayer may benefit from these monies collected and the use of the monies and the services, but with our current taxes going up, I think that next year would be a better environment to look at this, Jackel said. “We’re seeing the real estate market begin to level off. We’re seeing our situation improve and I don’t think that two weeks’ notice is enough time for us to fairly consider this on my part, to talk to folks and to even know what the consensus is.”
Jackel said she did not favor a mail out vote in any instance. “I understand that aspect for people who don’t want it for people who do but I disagree with a mail out vote,” she said. “I think that mailout votes typically prove that those who are in favor of something vote and those who aren’t don’t.”
Jackel’s vote proved decisive in the 3-2 decision to go to the ballot box and not the mails. She moved and Massey seconded the motion, with both Lockley and Parrish opposed.
Carrie Johnson, a deputy supervisor of elections, said Tuesday that Shuler had provided their office draft language for a ballot measure, which will be reviewed by both the county commission and the Florida Department of Revenue.
“We have a tentative election date for Nov. 5,” said Johnson. “They’ll be no early voting.”
Johnson said the books will close for voter registration on Oct. 7 and that absentee ballots will go out the first week of October.
Shuler said that the county commission will take up the question of the wording of the ballot measure, and the ordinance governing the imposition of the half-cent sales tax on Sept. 3.
The draft language of the ballot measure specifies that the money will be used “to fund a broad range of health care services to qualified indigent and medically poor Franklin County residents including elderly persons and children. The broad range of service shall include hospital inpatient services, hospital outpatient services, emergency rooms services, primary and preventive care, and other medical services, in a cost effective manner.”
To get a sense of what an additional half-cent will raise, the money brought in by the existing one-cent health care tax, first imposed midway through 2008, has been pretty consistent over the past five years, with steady gains over the last two years. In FY 2009, the tax raised about $1.4 million; in 2010 $1.37 million; and in 2011 $1.4 million. Over the last two years it has been $1.53 million and $1.58 million.