tampabay.com

Quick fix can hurt, officials contend

Florida Association of Counties members think property tax proposals may sound good but worsen the problem.

By WILL VAN SANT
Published September 30, 2006


CLEARWATER - Republican candidate for governor Charlie Crist and sundry legislative candidates are out to mend Florida's warped tax structure.

They want to double the homestead exemption from $25,000 to $50,000 and make the Save Our Homes cap on property assessments portable.

But Florida Association of Counties members from across the state Friday expressed deep unease with both ideas.

Many of the county commissioners who gathered at the Sheraton Sand Key Resort were fresh from budget hearings where fed-up residents demanded tax relief, and they know attempts at reform are likely during next year's legislative session in Tallahassee.

They want to make sure the burden of adjusting the tax structure is shared with state government and that chosen fixes don't worsen the situation.

"There is no silver bullet," said Pinellas County Commissioner Susan Latvala, who serves as the association's president. "The system is broken."

Friday's hourlong discussion was wide ranging, heavy with frustration and light on specifics.

"We're spinning our wheels here," said Seminole County Commissioner Brenda Carey.

No proposals were adopted. In December, the association will decide on specific goals to help shape its lobbying efforts in Tallahassee.

Yet it was clear battle lines are already being drawn.

Much of the recent taxpayer anger has come from those who own second homes, rental properties and commercial businesses.

They are not eligible for the protections offered by the homestead exemption and Save Our Homes cap, which limits assessments on primary residences from increasing by more than 3 percent a year.

County leaders worry that doubling the exemption to $50,000 would devastate local tax bases. Pinellas would lose about $45-million in revenue. Smaller rural counties would be hurt the most.

Further, critics say, while the move might play well with voters, it will do nothing to help those not eligible for the exemption, who have been the most vocal during the recent tax revolt.

"It makes an inequitable tax structure worse," said Pinellas County Administrator Steve Spratt.

County officials appeared more receptive toward allowing homeowners to transfer their assessment caps from one property to another, but they have doubts about unlimited portability.

They talked about prohibiting caps from being moved between counties and wondered whether the right to transfer a cap should exist only in cases where homeowners are downsizing, rather than moving up to larger, more expensive properties.

With a new governor and lots of new legislators in Tallahassee next year, Latvala said, the time has perhaps arrived for a broad overhaul of the state's tax system, including a review of how sales taxes are collected and disbursed.

After Election Day, Latvala said, she'll be paying a visit to whoever becomes governor - Crist or Democrat Jim Davis - and urging such a comprehensive look, instead of knee-jerk fixes.

"I will be looking him in the eye and begging him to talk to me before he does anything dramatic," Latvala said.

Will Van Sant can be reached at 445-4166 or vansant@sptimes.com.