Property Tax Reform Public Hearing
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06/06/07 Seán Kinane
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Last night at the University Area Community Center the Hillsborough County legeislative delegation held a public hearing on property tax reform. The state representatives and senators from Hillsborough heard presentations by the Cities of Temple Terrace, Plant City, Tampa, and by Hillsborough County regarding how those municipalities might be affected by anticipated property tax cuts proposed by Tallahassee. Following these presentations, members of the public had an opportunity to weigh in as well. WMNF’s Seán Kinane reports.

I feel very strongly that we need to think carefully before we put the [Hillsborough] County in a position where we have to lay off 800 to 1000 people and that’s what the [Florida] House [of Representatives] plan would call for.”

That was Hillsborough County Administrator Pat Bean. She presented several slides of what services and jobs would have to be cut, depending on which property tax relief proposal passes. But representative Trey Traviesa wasn’t impressed with the presentation of proposed cuts made by Bean though he did agree with County Commissioner Jim Norman that the state should cut its budget by the same percent it’s asking local governments to.

“It’s disappointing. I had to share that’s my feeling. It’s probably not a very smart political thing to say, but it’s my feeling. It’s disappointing. It’s one of the biggest apologies for why government has to have all the money it has today, that I’ve heard, and I’m in Tallahassee, I mean I hear a lot of apologies for big government all the time. And Commissioner Norman, you’ve got it. You help me draft it, I will give my first bill slot to the bill that you recommend, which is the state hold itself to the same level of cuts. I’ll do it; it’s got my first bill slot. Let’s write it together. I will propose it.”

Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio recommended that the upcoming budget be identical to last year’s. In order to do that, her departments proposed 16 million dollars of budget reductions and a hiring freeze was instituted. But Iorio feels that Governor Charlie Crist’s requirement that Police and Fire services were not to be affected by the budget cuts was unrealistic

“You can’t look at a budget that is half Police and Fire and then take a ten percent reduction to the overall general fund and say but Police and Fire are exempt. It can’t work that way because there’s not enough savings that you can find in other parts of the budget to make up for it. So, on a preliminary basis what this budget, what the department heads and the chiefs have come back with, have been a 7 and a half million dollar cut to police, and a two and a half million dollar cut to fire, and of course cuts to parks and recreation.”

Iorio said that one reason why Tampa will have a difficult time cutting spending is because its hands are tied because of a large number of Community Redevelopment Areas, or CRAs.

“I say this to you because a city, a community that has a lot of CRAs [Community Redevelopment Areas] already has an inordinate burden on its general fund because we fund basic services within a CRA and we do not get the new revenue from the increase in valuation. That new revenue stays within that CRA; it is used for infrastructure.”

Representative Faye Culp asked Mayor Iorio how the CRA law could be changed to allow cities more flexibility. Iorio suggested one such change.

“Because most CRAs have a thirty-year life, that you probably would want to step it and say for the first five years general government has to take care of the police an fire and so forth. But as it reaches certain growth benchmarks, that a certain percentage of CRA revenue then has to go for police, fire, parks and rec[reation], within that CRA.”

Plant City Mayor John Dicks said his city was able to find places in the budget where they could cut 20 percent, or 1.8 million dollars. But they found that, unfortunately, additional expenses like insurance went up by a million dollars. But even though his city relies on revenue from property taxes, Dicks is afraid that property taxes are becoming a type of wealth tax.

“What we’re looking at is looking to find a more equitable way to finance city government. In doing that, as I mentioned, at some point, property taxes become so onerous they become nothing more than a wealth tax. So at some level we simply say ‘enough is enough.’ There are other ways, for example, there’s a zillion loopholes in our state sales taxes. You could, for example, by eliminating things such as an exemption on ostrich feed, by eliminating an exemption for people paying sales taxes when they have luxury boxes at professional football games.”

A small number of properties are assessed at a higher value than they are currently worth because of a principle called “highest and best use.” But Hillsborough Property Appraiser Rob Turner feels that this practice might sometimes put an unfair burden on small businesses that have been a part of the community for years. He proposed a “legacy exemption” for such properties.

“If we are trying to focus on those properties that have been and will be affected by the highest and best-use principle, let’s consider for those property owners, a legacy exemption -- something special for those property owners while they continue to operate that small business that is perhaps now no longer the best type of operation for that property.”

60 people signed up to speak, but only about 35 of them stayed through the meeting long enough to take their turn. The public comments ranged from people who felt that the property taxes they pay now are fair considering that the value of their property has gone up so much, to those who wanted no property taxes. This is Steve O’Neil.

“I’m not paying taxes after this year. When the Lightning pay taxes … you know they say the Lightning are hurting financially. I had a bad year, take my house off the tax rolls and let me keep living there and keep getting all the benefits of ownership and everything. When they stop that stuff, then I’ll pay them taxes.”

Even though it was not on the agenda, many people, including Holly O’Brien, mentioned that the rising cost of homeowners insurance was much more important to them than property taxes. O’Brien is the President of the Humane Society of Tampa Bay, which does not receive any funds from Hillsborough County.

“Currently, I have no complaints about my property taxes. My property taxes have increased; have doubled in the last eight years. It’s a burden that my husband and I are happy to pay because we enjoy such a wonderful quality of life. However insurance … if you would concentrate on the insurance issue and perhaps allow our tax dollars to work in our communities for us.”

The Florida Legislature will begin a special session to address property tax reform on June 12th.


For WMNF News, I’m Seán Kinane.



FMI

Hillsborough County Legislative Delegation
http://www.hillsboroughcounty.org/legislativedelegation/



City of Tampa Community Redevelopment Areas [CRAs]
http://www.tampagov.net/dept_economic_and_urban_development/programs_and_services/Community_redevelopment_areas/

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