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By DAVID KARP
© St. Petersburg Times, published December 2, 2000
TAMPA -- It was supposed to work this way:
Once the county spent down its health care reserve fund, Hillsborough's quarter-cent sales tax for health care for the poor would automatically go up to a half-cent.
But now, with the increase set to happen in February, County Commissioner Jim Norman has proposed keeping the quarter-cent tax at its current level for another 21/2 years.
In a memo, Norman said he did not think the county needed to raise the health care tax, which would increase the county's sales tax to 7 percent. He could not be reached for comment Friday.
Commissioners first passed a half-cent sales tax in 1990 to create Hillsborough's nationally recognized health care plan for the poor. The government program acts as health insurance for those who cannot afford private health insurance. It pays for them to get regular medical checkups at area hospitals, as well as emergency surgery.
With the tax set to expire, state legislators in 1997 agreed to extends its life another five years. But they did so with some conditions. The sales tax would be cut to a quarter-cent while the fund's growing reserve funds was used.
Once the reserve fund dropped to a certain level, though, the sales tax would go back up to a half-cent without a vote.
In November, officials announced that reserve funds had dropped well below targeted levels. Hospitals were charging more, and the Legislature also diverted $3.5-million a year directly to Tampa General Hospital.
This year, the county had to take $30.7-million from reserve funds to pay for the program, which cost $76.6-million. The reserve fund dropped from $116.6-million last year to $85.9-million this year. Even with the tax increase, the reserve fund will still be less than the cost of operating the program for one year.
Commissioners will discuss Norman's proposal on Wednesday.