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Give us a break, county is told

A standing-room-only crowd jams the budget hearing to protest tax bills that soar because of property valuations.

Published September 13, 2006

TAMPA - Budget season had been going smoothly for Hillsborough County commissioners.

Few people bothered to attend two prior hearings on the $3.8-billion budget proposal, one that soared over past years' spending plans.

Then property tax notices went out.

Nearly 140 people - a standing-room-only crowd - filled the commission chambers Tuesday night at the County Center to protest another year of double-digit percentage increases to their tax bills.

Their message: Give us a break!

Commissioners said they understood their pain and would look more closely at a rate cut even steeper than the 0.39 mill they are considering.

They will hold the final public hearing on the budget Sept. 21. They have asked County Administrator Pat Bean to look for ways to trim as much as $44-million in spending out of the plan to make it possible to have a full mill property tax rate cut.

One mill equals $1 of tax for every $1,000 of assessed property value.

Soaring property values have been driving tax bills higher, with increases in the county averaging 21 percent last year, 23 percent in unincorporated areas. They have been rising at double-digit or near double-digit levels since 2000.

"We are talking about helping the homeless, and we should," said Commissioner Brian Blair, who encouraged some of the people in the audience to attend through prehearing e-mails and has pressed for bigger cuts to the tax rate. "We're creating the homeless."

Many audience members also attended the hearing at the urging of Hillsborough County Property Appraiser Rob Turner's office, which has been fielding a flood of angry calls since sending out property tax notices earlier this summer.

Some on hand were real estate agents, who said their clients are being priced out of homes, not because of rising list prices but because of skyrocketing taxes and insurance costs. Perhaps more were rental property or small business owners who don't have the shield of the state's 3 percent cap on property tax increases for people who live in their homes.

Some also were retirees who said they want to buy smaller houses but fear the property tax hit if they move. They waved fluorescent signs that read: "Shame on Our Government," "Down With Taxes" and "You're Taxing Us to Death."

Jesse Rupp, 78, told commissioners that he gets $464 from Social Security each month, while his wife, who is a year younger, gets $194. A retired truck driver with diabetes, Rupp said he doesn't know how he's going to pay the $4,739 property tax bill on the home he built in Drew Park in 1953.

"I can't afford that kind of money," Rupp said. "I'm sort of in a spot."

Commissioners expressed surprise at the large showing, which is similar to what other governments have been experiencing around the state.

Hernando and Pinellas counties were suddenly looking to find ways to cut their tax rates after confronting angry crowds or phone and e-mail campaigns in the past week.

Unlike those governments, Hillsborough commissioners previously agreed to cut their millage by the largest percentage in recent history, on top of the 14 years straight of lowering the millage by more incremental levels.

Commissioner Ronda Storms suggested that some in the audience take their frustration out on Tampa, which is not proposing any tax rate cut.

Some said they would, while saying the county needs to do more.

The reduction under consideration would still have many property owners paying more, some, significantly more.

Matt Augustine of Valrico said he has two houses he rents to others on top of the one he owns. He said the tax bill on one rental has gone from $2,500 to $4,000 since 2002. The other went from $2,000 to $3,400.

"Calling that a tax cut?" Augustine said. "My taxes have gone up 60 percent. That's unsustainable."

Brenda Ayala, a general contractor and mortgage broker from Tampa, said the taxes on six rental properties she owns have ballooned by $11,000 this year alone. Renters are being priced out, and working families are getting turned down for mortgages as a result.

"We're asking you to help us out," she said.

The budget proposal that commissioners tentatively approved calls for an increase in county spending of about 10 percent over last year. It has climbed at a similar pace for the past five years.

The county administrator has said that officials must pay for more sheriff's deputies and firefighters, not to mention the same gas, concrete, steel and insurance price increases that everyone else is facing.

Randy Buono, a Tampa resident with a small promotions business, reminded commissioners that property values aren't going to keep climbing at the same rate, and government spending should take that into account.

"This the most prosperous time in Hillsborough County," he said. "What in heaven's name are you going to ask of us when times are tough?"

[Last modified September 13, 2006, 06:45:02]

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