tampabay.com

School Board rejects taxpayers' pleadings

A normally routine rate-setting session draws a crowd. Rising assessments are killing them, they say.

By THOMAS C. TOBIN and DONNA WINCHESTER
Published September 13, 2006


LARGO - For the second time in five days, angry Pinellas taxpayers confronted and sidetracked a large taxing body in the late stages of its budget process.

Last week, it happened to the County Commission, which agreed after a four-hour public hearing to consider lowering the county government's tax rate for the coming year.

On Tuesday night, it was the Pinellas School Board's turn as 14 residents, most of them landlords and business people, pleaded for tax relief. Their efforts complicated a normally uncontested procedure.

But a board majority turned back a push by members Mary Russell and Janet Clark to meet the crowd's demands. Russell and Clark separately proposed tax rate reductions that would have reduced the budget by millions at the 11th hour.

"It is totally, totally irresponsible for this board to take this action now," countered board member Mary Brown.

In the end, a board majority approved a 2006-07 budget that will reduce the district's tax rate. But it still won't be low enough to prevent many property owners from having to pay more in school taxes this fall.

The $1.4-billion budget will require a tax rate of $8.21 for every $1,000 of taxable assessed value - down from $8.39 last year. However, the overall value of the county's tax rolls has increased 20 percent, meaning many property owners will end up paying more than last year.

Tuesday was the School Board's second and final budget hearing, a typically quiet affair before a mostly empty auditorium. But steadily rising real estate values and skyrocketing insurance rates have conspired this year to bring many Florida taxpayers to the breaking point.

"I will be borrowing money this year to pay my taxes," Liz Limroth, president of Gull Harbor Condominium Association in North Redington Beach, told the board. "I appreciated the itty-bitty bit you gave us, but you are just taxing us out of business."

She said the association's property tax assessment shot up 100 percent last year and will rise an additional 20 percent this year.

Rents have gone up by $145 a month and occupancy rates have dropped from 100 percent to 85 percent, she said.

Bob Cummings, owner of a six-unit apartment complex in Madeira Beach, said the tax bill has risen from $719 to $1,750 on one of his lots and from $1,517 to $3,289 on another.

"The taxing authorities make more off of my small properties than I do," he said. "They don't come out and work at my property. They just take the money."

The speakers did exact a promise from the board to keep the public better informed, earlier in the months-long budget process, next year.

Tracking the budget under the current system takes an unusually savvy and vigilant taxpayer.

"What we heard tonight is that it's too late for our input," said Paul Gibson, a Largo Realtor. "One has to ask one's self: 'What good is this public hearing if it's too late for us to give our input? Why are we even here? ' "

Under the new budget, the school district plans to spend $187-million more than it did last year, largely because of a 34 percent increase in "capital outlay" expenses such as constructing or remodeling schools, maintenance and purchasing school buses.

District officials say operating expenses have increased as well, especially for energy, fuel, insurance and meeting the cost of the amendment to reduce class sizes. Property and casualty insurance rose more than 200 percent, the district said.

On the brighter side, school officials say the district will start living within its means after five years of deficit spending that eroded reserves. They say a $17-million budget cut earlier this year will allow the district to double its reserves and put it on better financial footing in the future.

The new tax rate, district officials say, is the second lowest in the last 18 years.