Half-cent tax not dead yet; plan in works

Although Nov. 7, Leon County voters voted no to increase the half-cent sales tax, which would have provided health care for the working poor, work is still being done to find out why and what can be done to better suit the citizens.

The Tallahassee Equality Action Ministry worked for two and a half years to get the healthcare referendum on the ballot. However, lack of information and refusal to increase the sales tax swayed voters to decline the amendment, said Bill Phelan, a member of TEAM’s board of directors.

“They didn’t know enough about the plan,” Phelan said. “It was a lot of disinformation that caught on. There was more disinformation than information.”

The support received from the Black Chamber of Commerce, the Capitol Outlook and other entities was not enough to get the word out.

Increasing the sales tax would only have taken $57 away from Leon County citizens’ pockets.

“People were not in the mood to vote for a higher tax, especially after the property tax,” Phelan said.The referendum’s position on the ballot was also an obstacle that Phelan addressed. But in the end he said, “We didn’t do a good enough job.”

Now that TEAM knows what the problem is, they are working to try to revamp the bill. TEAM has partnered with Tallahassee Memorial Hospital and the Tallahassee Chamber of Commerce to see if there is a different way to accomplish the same goal. “The issue is not going away and neither are we,” said Phelan, who is trying to develop a similar plan or a different one.

Phelan said he is pleased with the new county commissioners who seem to be open to revamping the plan, as opposed to the old county commissioners who did not present a firm support system.

“I think we can work with those people a little better than the old people,” Phelan said. “They were really soft on their position on it. They were not solidly behind it.”

Dr. Edward Holifield, a medical consultant, also expressed that the county officials played a vibrant part in the failure of the health care amendment.

“I wasn’t surprised that it was voted down,” Holifield said. “The whole Tallahassee power structure, just about, lined up against it.”

Holifield said an example of this is the approximate $700,000 campaign that Jim Davis and Bryan Desloge ran.

“The central theme of their campaign was to beat up on the health care proposal,” Holifield said. “They didn’t want to raise the taxes to take care of all these poor people.” Holifield said the issue is not on the political agenda, therefore people don’t know about it.

“People talk about spring time in Tallahassee, the performing arts and the downtown condos,” Holifield explained. “The reason they don’t talk about (the health care plan) is because they don’t regard it as important.”

Some of the immediate medical concerns that threaten the uninsured Leon County community are cervical cancer, HIV and infant mortality.

Holifield said the black infant mortality rate is 14 per every 1,000 births. Black babies are dying before the reach their first birthday at a rate four times that of white babies, he said. “But the bottom line is the problem is not going to go away,” Holifield said. “The power structure looks the other way and does nothing and says nothing.”

Holifield and Phelan both said lack of support is another issue that prevented the amendment from passing.

Holifield said TMH and the Tallahassee Democrat both started off against the sales tax increase, then changed their support to “lukewarm.” The Tallahassee Chamber of Commerce and the City of Tallahassee didn’t really support the issue at all, he said. The chamber of commerce and city officials were unavailable for comment.

Warren Jones, a spokesman for TMH, said, “The board of directors in late summer issued a statement saying that they felt the tax initiative should be delayed until there was broader community consensus on the issue. We will look forward to being a part of the organization that gets together to come up with that consensus,” Jones said.

Jones said the hospital was not against the idea but wanted certain specifications.

Once the county commission decided to keep the issue on the ballot, TMH issued a second statement indicating a support for the bill on the terms of three principles.

TMH wanted to exclusively follow patient encounters, wanted the health care coverage to be used as a last resort and wanted the coverage to be governed by a committee.

After all the kinks have been worked out, TEAM and other organizations will try to do a better job of informing the voters of the importance of the issue, which they hope will be on the 2007 ballot.

“We’re not going to get the community involved until we get a plan,” Phelan said. “We will work with a whole bunch of people to see if we can come up with a better plan or maybe a different plan, but something has to be done.”