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Revenue: growing, growing, gone

As property values boom, tax money pours into local governments, which always seem to find ways to spend it and avoid cutting taxes.

By AARON SHAROCKMAN
Published August 19, 2006


React: What you do you think?

Property insurance rates doubling. Gas prices topping $3 a gallon. Trash bills, water bills, electric bills - all going up.

Whatever it is, it seems to cost more these days.

Don't expect your local government to help.

Cities, counties and school boards across Tampa Bay are using your money to grow at record rates, sucking in huge increases in property tax revenues and in return offering only marginal cuts to the tax rate, if any.

It has become a shrewd political maneuver in this era of robust property growth. Politicians can tout new parks or libraries and cut your tax rate. But the bottom line is, you're paying more. Much more.

Since 2001, the size of local government across the area has nearly doubled. Five years ago, the city of Tampa took in $97.7-million in property tax revenues. This year, it expects to collect $167.7-million, an increase of almost 72 percent. The city of Clearwater's property tax revenues skyrocketed 85 percent in the same time.

With all that extra money, what did you get?

"People live on a budget. And when the budget gets tight, people have to tighten their belt," said Hillsborough County Commissioner Brian Blair, who has pushed his government for substantial spending cuts. "Government should be no different. But for some reason, it plays by different rules."

Local governments have plenty of explanations for the rising budgets, and they mirror residents' woes: Property insurance costs have skyrocketed. Pension funds are thinning. Gas prices are up. So is the cost of health insurance.

But unlike most residents across the Tampa Bay area who have to do more with less, governments are able to take more in taxes to make up the difference. The city of St. Petersburg, for instance, will cut its tax rate by at least 5 percent next year, but will still collect $10-million more in property tax revenues.

Why? Because the value of property keeps going up.

Hillsborough County has seen similarly dramatic gains in property tax revenues despite cutting the tax rate in each of the past five years. This year, commissioners have tentatively approved their largest rate reduction in at least two decades.

A booming population in Pasco County demands more fire, police and other services, said budget director Mike Nurrenbrock, explaining his county's increase in tax revenues. The Sheriff's Office alone wants to add 98 jobs to keep pace, Nurrenbrock said.

And Pinellas County government plans to grow 12 percent next year. By comparison, the state budget grew about 14 percent. Millions of dollars are being pushed into social services programs, including help for the homeless and the creation of below market housing.

The county also is pushing a modest tax-rate cut, about 3 percent.

County Commission chairman Ken Welch said that those who call for more dramatic tax reductions in these flush times raise valid concerns. But where should government cut?

The money that houses and feeds the homeless? The money that pays for the transportation needs of workers or helps them afford rent?

"The lines really blur when you are on the ground, so to speak, in the midst of battle," Welch said. "Philosophy goes out the window."

From a broader perspective, however, local government spending appears wildly out of control.

City property tax revenues have doubled in the last six years, according to a state analysis, more than twice the rate of personal income growth in the state. School board revenue collections have increased 70 percent since 2000 (the state mandates much of that share), while county governments have collected 80 percent more, according to the study.

Local governments have an "insatiable appetite for money," said David Daniel, vice president of governmental affairs for the Florida Chamber of Commerce. "And at the end of the day, it's our wallets that are getting squeezed."

Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard is hearing the complaints. But whenever the city contemplates reducing some service, he also hears people argue against the cut.

"We need to get to a point where people applaud and re-elect people because they don't do something to them," said Hibbard. "They don't add some new service. They don't add some new facility."

"Unfortunately, it seems like government is always growing," said Safety Harbor's interim Mayor Andy Steingold. Steingold is paying $5,000 more in property taxes himself this year. "I feel it, too."

Most governments wait until summer to lay the bottom line on citizens. And even then, most don't see the televised public meeting or understand the obtuse newspaper story.

Many area residents found the grim reality in the mail this week, in the form of county Truth in Millage notices.

Property taxes on the Oldsmar condominium Vanita Hall rents out have tripled in four years. Her Truth in Millage notice was just the latest bad news for Hall, who is struggling to keep up with the risings costs of her four rental properties in the Tampa Bay area.

Hall will have to pay $1,800 in property taxes on that one condo alone, she said. She paid $600 in 2002.

"What are they doing that's different?" asked Hall. "I don't see anything for that money. Water's more expensive. Electric is more expensive. What gives?"

Bert Swain, the co-owner of Rollin' Oats whole foods market and cafe in St. Petersburg, is facing a double whammy familiar to small business owners who don't get the 3 percent tax bill cap that most homeowners get.

Swain, 55, already has seen his insurance rates triple in the last year. This week he received his Truth in Millage notice - he will have to pay $12,422 next year, $2,400 more than in 2006.

"I think every one wants to know, 'Where are my taxes going?' " Swain said.

In Hillsborough County, the government started budget talks this year with a staggering $149-million surplus, said Blair, a county commissioner.

But before commissioners could even consider a tax rate decrease, $112-million was already spoken for, sucked into the county operation.

The county did cut its tax rate, but Blair said it missed an opportunity for real relief. Using the entire surplus, the county could have cut its overall tax rate by almost a third.

"What bothers me is, we have people waiting to the very last day to pay their utility bills because they can't afford it," Blair said. "And we have all this money - that's theirs - and we think we know how to spend it better than they do."

Times staff writers Melanie Ave, David DeCamp, Will Van Sant and Bill Varian contributed to this report. Aaron Sharockman can be reached at (727) 892-2273 or asharockman@sptimes.com.

Tampa property tax receipts

2001-2002: $97.7-million

2006-2007: $167.7-million

+72%

St. Petersburg property tax receipts

2001-2002: $64.4-million

2006-2007: $103.4-million

+61%

Clearwater property tax receipts

2001-2002: $30-million

2006-2007: $55.5-million

+85%

ON THE WEB

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[Last modified August 19, 2006, 01:18:32]


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