Taxpayers to committee: Help!

Property values soar but tax rates don't adjust, they complain. Some fear losing their homes.

Published November 18, 2006

TAMPA - Kay Hanks is giving the state two years to fix the inequities in Florida's property tax system.

If nothing is done by that time, the 42-year-old Dunedin woman said, she will put her "exit strategy" to work and sell her house and move to Georgia.

"The cost of government needs to be much more in line with the earning potential of citizens," Hanks told the governor's property tax reform committee Friday at its meeting in Tampa. "I had to take out a loan to pay my taxes and insurance.

"That's hideous. It's a crime. It's immoral. It's a sin for people to be chased out of their homes for taxes and insurance."

Hanks was one of about 30 citizens who voiced their frustration and offered solutions to help the 15-member committee examining the state's property tax system at the request of Gov. Jeb Bush.

The committee will meet again, possibly on Nov. 29 in Orlando, to discuss its preliminary recommendations, which are due by Dec. 15. A final report will be issued in December 2007.

Committee chairman Don DeFosset, retired chief executive officer of Walter Industries, said he believes many of the business leaders and lawmakers on the committee agree that spending controls need to be placed on local governments.

Even as massive growth has created a significant jump in property tax revenues around the state, few local governments have dropped their tax rates in turn.

"The magnitude of the increased spending in this state is alarming," he said.

Tuesday's speakers expressed frustration with growing tax bills and said they are pushing out seasonal residents and hurting small business owners. Several requested spending caps. Others suggested changing property assessment methods and adding a limit on tax increases on business property.

Tom Mixson suggested all property be assessed by square footage instead of the current highest and best use possible.

The panel is focusing on solutions to property tax revenue increases, which have bypassed personal income growth, as well as unequal tax burdens created by Save Our Homes.

Voters added the provision to the Constitution in 1992.

Save Our Homes limits tax increases on homesteads - homes lived in by their owners - to 3 percent annually or the growth in the Consumer Price Index, whichever is lower.

As a result, much of the tax burden has been shifted to owners of newly purchased homes, second homes and businesses.

Mary Wilkerson, who owns 15 rental villas on Indian Rocks Beach, told the committee that skyrocketing taxes are forcing mom-and-pop businesses like hers to close, which is changing much of Florida's character.

"You have a unique opportunity to look at that," she said. "What do you want Florida to look like in 50 years?"

Melanie Ave can be reached at 727 893-8813 or mave@sptimes.com.