CITIZENS SPEAK OUT ABOUT HIGH PROPERTY TAXES by Roxanne Escobales

09/13/06

Last night at a public hearing on the budget, the Hillsborough County Commission heard from angry residents and business owners who said their property taxes are too high. Commissioner Brian Blair said he’s never seen the chambers so full.

ACT:

While the commission agreed to cut the property tax rate this past July, a rise in property values means that tax bills have also risen. Blair unsuccessfully pushed for rates to be cut significantly more than they were. Now the commission is finalizing the budget, the commissioner said the county needs to make sure basic services are taken care of, such as education, public safety, basic services and the infrastructure. But anything beyond that is fair game for cuts.

ACT:

In Pinellas County, residents and business owners face the same rise in property tax bills, and that county commission heard similar complaints from taxpayers last Thursday during a public hearing. It too is in the middle of finalizing its budget.

Pinellas County Chairman Ken Welch says that a new approach is needed when working out the budget. Pinellas County government is rewriting the budget from the ground up.

ACT:

New priorities for Pinellas County include funding services that would help lessen the population of its severely overcrowded jail. These are called diversion programs and include drug rehab and mental health services Welch said other programs that get funded every year but are not worthwhile could be cut to make room in the budget to lower tax rates.

ACT:

County commissions and city councils are under pressure from taxpayers to rewrite budgets to accommodate tax relief. The Florida Constitution dictates that property values are determined from market values of the year before. While the real estate market faces a slowdown, last year house prices were still rising.

Warren Weathers is the chief deputy property appraiser in Hillsborough County. He said that over the last three years, property values have risen by 24.9 percent. But that is changing.

ACT:

Governor Jeb Bush recently formed a task force to address the state property tax laws, which are generally viewed as flawed. Bob McKee is the financial policy director for the Florida Association of Counties, which represents county governments throughout the state.

ACT:

The governors task force will hold public meetings throughout the state, including one in Hillsborough County in November. It will present its findings to the legislature in March, before the spring session.

But as state property laws are part of the constitution any change will have to be voted on by Florida residents. Unless a special vote is called, the soonest voters would have a chance to change the laws would be in November 2008.

Until then, Warren Weathers of the Hillsborough County appraiser’s office urges citizens to attend public meetings to get their voices heard.

ACT:

Tampa City Council will hold a public budget meeting tomorrow night. Pinellas County’s next public hearing on the budget takes place on September 19th and Hillsborough’s on September 21.

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