Tough to kick the habit when it's state-approved

By Times editorial
Published February 4, 2007

Championing local control used to be a universal staple of the campaign trail.

Locals clamored for more authority for their own governing and the end to the dreaded unfunded mandates from above. Candidates for higher office advocated likewise saying cities, counties and school boards should be in charge of their own affairs. Decisions affecting the community should be made here not in Tallahassee or Washington, D.C.

Now, here comes Gov. Charlie Crist saying local governments are spending too much money. People are clamoring for property tax relief, he says.

So much for local control. Crist's assortment of ideas, to be fleshed out by legislators, include doubling the homestead exemption to $50,000 and/or making the Save our Homes exemption portable.

If local governments are spending too much money, and the public is unhappy about it, voters can respond at the ballot box. That would be local control. Trumpeting changes to Florida's Constitution that would affect local government services is not.

Doubling the homestead exemption does not address the inequities created by Save Our Homes - the voter-approved Constitutional amendment that limits annual assessment increases to 3 percent but shifts a greater share of the local tax burden to the more recent homebuyers.

Increasing the homestead for each single-family home pushes an even greater share of the tax responsibility on businesses and rental property owners.

In Pasco, doubling the homestead exemption for the 124,149 qualified homes will remove more than $2.6-billion from the tax rolls, according to Pasco Property Appraiser Mike Wells.

By my math, that's a nearly $16-million cut in the Pasco County general revenue budget at the current tax rate of just less than 6 mills.

Allowing a homeowner to transfer his or her Save Our Homes exemption when they buy a new house would trim statewide property tax revenue by $3.58-billion next year, according to 2005 estimates from a legislative committee.

That's $3.58-billion (and growing each year) worth of sheriff's deputies, jail guards, firefighters, librarians, lifeguards, park attendants, road crews and other local government employees that could fall by the wayside.

These ideas are contrarian to the typical way the state operates. Consider:

In the late 1980s, after the state required comprehensive land-use planning on the local level, it said governments could pay for the added costs of required infrastructure through an optional sales tax increase. (Pasco voters just approved their penny on the dollar sales tax increase in 2004.)

When road-building became backlogged in the early 1990s, legislators responded by telling local governments they could raise the gasoline tax by a nickel per gallon.

You see a trend here? For decades, the convenient response in Tallahassee has been to tell local governments to raise their own taxes to pay for needed services.

This year, school boards across the state are required to charge an average of 5 mills to come up with $7.35-billion that the Legislature then redistributed back to the local districts. In Pasco, that state-required assessment is the second-biggest item on property tax bills.

Additionally, to help build and maintain schools, purchase buses and cover other capital expenses, each district is allowed to charge two mills of added tax, known as local discretionary capital outlay.

In 2005, to qualify for $113-million worth of special school construction money for fast-growing districts, legislators said local school boards had to have charged that maximum 2 mills for four consecutive years.

In other words, legislators recognized the need to help districts maxed out on their school construction resources. How then can they now rationalize that local governments are spending too much money?

And let's not forget what happened the last time someone monkeyed with the homestead exemption. It was the early 1980s when the courts said Florida's $25,000 homestead exemption had to be applied uniformly despite voter intent to phase in the exemption.

Local governments fretted about their ability to provide essential services because of the unexpected drop in revenue. Pasco County wanted to embark on millions of dollars worth of road-building projects. To pay for it, commissioners doubled the gasoline tax.

The 1984 episode is famous in local government history because then-Commissioner Sandra Werner, nursing a back injury, arrived on an ambulance stretcher to cast her vote in favor of the higher tax.

It's a valuable lesson. Local public service needs aren't going to shrink just because someone in Tallahassee advocates downsizing the public purse. And some people might be willing to climb out of a hospital bed to assert their local control.