County votes to lessen tax bite

Commissioners seek to create a tax-cut fund to reduce the property tax rate.

Published January 5, 2007

TAMPA - Hillsborough County commissioners continued in their effort Thursday to make property tax reduction a top priority in the coming year.

Commissioners voted 6-1 during their first meeting of the new year to create a so-called millage reduction fund that would be used to help lessen the bite of property tax increases.

Under the proposal from Commissioner Brian Blair, money set aside for projects that don't happen would be put into a still-to-be-created piggy bank of sorts. At the end of the year, the money saved would be returned to property owners in the form of a tax rate cut.

It would take a vote of at least 5-2 to remove the money from the savings account, a margin intended to make a raid unlikely except in times of emergency.

"One of the hardest things to do when you're growing up is start a savings account," said Blair, adding later, "We owe this to the taxpayer."

The tax-cut fund follows a proposal made by commission Chairman Jim Norman late last year to cap the county's year-over-year spending by a factor that takes into account population growth and inflation. Terms of that proposal are still being crafted.

The county has experienced double-digit increases annually in average property values and county government spending in recent years.

Newly elected Commissioner Rose Ferlita was the lone vote against Blair's millage reduction fund. She said it was clear from commissioners' comments in recent months and on the campaign trail that the board is committed to lowering the tax rate for property owners stung by sharply increasing values that have sent tax bills soaring.

"I just don't see the need for another piggybank," Ferlita said.

Blair attempted to make the first deposit on the new account. Commissioners last year had pledged $97,512 to the Tampa/Hillsborough Urban League Inc., but because the nonprofit has gone bust, the money will stay with the county.

However, County Administrator Pat Bean and her staff must still formally create the millage reduction fund and proposed policies for how to use it, so that action was delayed until a later date.

Blair said afterward that he hopes county department leaders will compete to see who can come up with the most savings for the fund.

Neither Blair's nor Norman's policy is likely to lower year-over-year tax bills for property owners, particularly those who own businesses or rental properties that are not protected by the Save Our Homes tax cap on homeowners.

Blair's aim is to keep property taxes from raising each year at a pace that forces people out of their homes or to sell their businesses.


. Fast facts

In other action

- Commissioners voted unanimously and without discussion to settle a federal lawsuit with strip club owner Joe Redner, who sued the county over its enactment of a policy banning government recognition of gay pride events. As part of the settlement, the county will add language to the policy that says it should not "be construed to prevent citizens from exercising their First Amendment rights in an appropriate forum." Both sides will pay their own legal bills.

- The board offered its endorsement of four local bills, including two that would increase the county's representation on the planning commission and on the Tampa Sports Authority. Commissioners Rose Ferlita and Mark Sharpe opposed the stand, with Sharpe arguing that the county delay the vote for two weeks to allow public comment.