Taxed beyond the breaking point

From the Keys to the panhandle, residents are in revolt over property tax relief.

Published September 13, 2006

Taxpayers are fed up.

In city halls, school board chambers and county commission meeting rooms across Florida, taxpayers are showing up before their local governments by the dozens, even hundreds, begging for tax relief.

The growing tax revolt is transforming normally mundane budget hearings into emotional showdowns.

“The average local redneck can’t live here anymore,” Ben Moxley said Tuesday, as he rebuked the Crystal River City Council for failing to lower municipal taxes.

It is the elected vs. the electorate from Pensacola to Miami.

So many people showed up for the Leon County budget hearing in Tallahassee this week that some people watched from a jury room four floors away.

About 200 people packed a Hollywood City Commission meeting on Monday and told sad stories until the wee hours of the night.

On Tuesday, a standing-room-only crowd filled the Hillsborough County Commission meeting. Some retirees carried signs reading, “Shame on Our Government’’ and “You’re Taxing Us to Death.’’

“It’s an awakening,’’ said Susan Latvala, president of the Florida Association of Counties and a Pinellas County commissioner.

Florida TaxWatch president Dominic Calabro said many people have finally seen the inequities in the state’s 14-year-old property valuation system that shifts some tax burden to business owners, new home buyers, people with second homes and renters.

He said property values have increased by the double digits for six years, including last year’s 27 percent bump, and Floridians are finally asking why their local governments have not reduced their taxes.

“What happens when you rob Peter to pay Paul?’’ Calabro asked. “The thing is, even Paul has to pay some time.’’
Gov. Jeb Bush said he is glad to hear of rising citizen action.

“This is the second year of a dramatic increase in assessments,’’ he said. “And local governments ... few of them have rolled back rates. If they’ve done it, they’re kind of modest rollbacks given the amount of money they’ve taken in. So I think there is an awareness of that. It’s all across the state.”

At the heart of the revolt is property values that have soared from the recent real estate boom. But it is exacerbated by the rising cost of homeowners insurance, electricity and gasoline.

Those really feeling the tax pinch are rental and commercial property owners who do not qualify for the state’s 3 percent cap on property tax increases, which is reserved for homesteads.

People who bought homes complain that they are facing much higher taxes because they cannot shift the tax cap they had at a previous home.

The result is a wide disparity in tax bills from neighbor to neighbor.

“Our state tax system is broken,’’ Latvala said. “We can’t fix it locally. But, obviously, that’s where people come, to the people closest to them.’’

Many elected leaders believe the tax revolt is just beginning.

The city of Tampa, the Citrus County Commission and the city of St. Petersburg are still finalizing their budgets for next year and have not gotten the full blast from taxpayers.

“There is a revolution going on,’’ said St. Petersburg City Council Chairman Bill Foster. “Their arguments are twofold: Give us a break now and don’t just blame Tallahassee; go up there and change it.

“We are their voice.’’

Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio wants to keep the tax rate the same, which would increases property taxes by $28.7-million because of rising values.

  Many council members agree with Iorio, but council member Rose Ferlita said that the tax rate proposal is not a done deal and that her colleagues should reconsider their positions.

“Citizens are being forced financially to make do with less and government should do the same,” she said.
Some local governments have reversed tax increases or approved deeper cuts than planned after getting an earful from upset residents.

Broward County commissioners on Tuesday ordered a bigger tax rate cut after listening to more than 50 people at a hearing.

The Pinellas County Commission last week said it planned to do the same.

The St. Petersburg City Council recently asked taxpayers for spending cut suggestions after hearing from angry taxpayers.

And an angry Yvonne McKinley of Dunedin told Pinellas County School Board members Tuesday her property tax already has increased from $1,500 to $4,500.

“Every month I have to borrow $3,500 from the equity,’’ McKinley said. “I cannot afford this.’’

Clearwater Beach’s Marty Altner, 59, went before the Pinellas County Commission and the School Board in the past week, publicly requesting lower taxes for the first time in his life.

He plans to make the same request of the city of Clearwater next week.

“I don’t mind paying taxes, but at the same time there’s something called paying taxes and being put out of business,’’ said Altner, who owns about 180 north Pinellas apartments.

 In Citrus County, dozens of angry property owners lashed out at the School Board during a final budget hearing Tuesday, complaining that higher taxes would price them out of the county.

When board members said they had little control over the tax rate, several people threatened to start petitions and try to drive board members out of office.

By the end of the night, superintendent Sandra “Sam” Himmel agreed to slash the budget by $2-million and proposed a slightly lower millage rate. The audience erupted in cheers and applause.

Tallahassee lawyer Stephen Hogge, 46, started the Citizens for Property Tax Relief two months ago. The group helped encourage Leon County commissioners to reduce the tax rate Tuesday with 200 people in attendance.

“People,’’ he said, “have strong feelings about taxes.’’

 Times researcher John Martin and staff writers Eddy Ramirez, Joni James, Donna Winchester, Asjylyn Loder and Janet Zink contributed to this report. Melanie Ave can be reached at mave@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8813.