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Size of health care reserve eyed

The County Commission is divided over whether to delay a sales tax increase that would help fund the program for the poor.


© St. Petersburg Times, published December 20, 2000

TAMPA -- This is the way Hillsborough County Commissioner Jim Norman sees it: A county health care reserve fund remains preposterously large while taxpayers cope with unnecessarily high taxes.

Raising the county's sales tax another quarter-cent so the reserve can swell even higher, as called for by the law that governs the health care program for the poor, would be unfair and irresponsible. So Norman wants to scrap the tax increase scheduled for Feb. 1, let the reserve dwindle to $25-million and bump the taxes back up later.

This is the way Jorge Capdevila sees it: He has high blood pressure and must take preposterously expensive medicine to ward off a stroke or heart attack. He earns $6 an hour as a part-time radio announcer, pays child support from that, and worries that letting the health care reserve dwindle is a risk to the program that gives him the medicine for free.

Today, Norman and his colleagues on the County Commission will figure out just what should be done about the quarter-cent sales tax that funds the county's health care program. If no change is made, the tax automatically will increase to a half-cent Feb. 1.

The program is available to Hillsborough's poorest residents. To qualify, an individual must earn less than $8,200 annually, a family of four, less than $17,000.

The program, which has received national acclaim, covers checkups and other preventive care.

Three funding options are officially on the table today, and Commissioner Chris Hart plans to float a fourth:

The first option is Norman's idea of delaying the sales tax increase until the program's reserves, now at about $77-million, dip to $25-million. County estimates show that would happen in early 2002.

Some of Norman's colleagues fear that allowing the reserve to decline would leave the county vulnerable if more people need to be enrolled in the program.

A second option is to make no changes. The tax for the program would then double to a half-cent, keeping the reserves at an estimated $67-million by September 2001.

A third option would be to delay the increase until 2002.

And then there's Hart's hope of delaying an increase until next September, keeping reserves no lower than $40-million to $50-million.

"My main concern is if we're going to address reserves, the question is what level is appropriate and using what standard," Hart said. "I think $25-million is too low."

The seven-member commission is divided on the issue. Its three Democrats want the tax increase. Three of the four Republicans are inclined to seek a delay.

Hart occupies the middle.

"This is just a tough thing to craft," he said. "There's more complexity to it than we would like to believe."

That's not the way Norman sees it.

It's fairly simple, he said. He loves the program, he said, but it is quietly being expanded with the public's money without broad public discussion.

"I believe that is breaking faith with the people who pay the bills," Norman said.

The program's supporters do want it expanded. The commission is scheduled to hold a workshop next month to discuss just that.

"The economy is going into a decline, and so the half-cent will take in less," said Ron Weaver, a lawyer who has served on the finance committee of St. Joseph's Hospital. "And during a declining economy, more people need a program like this. The program only helps the most needful."

Commission's options

Here are four options the Hillsborough County Commission could consider for the sales tax for indigent health care during its meeting today:

Make no changes and let the tax double to a half-cent on Feb. 1

Delay tax increase until reserves fall to $25-million

Delay tax increase until September 2001

Delay tax increase until 2002

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