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Politics

Property tax fixes run gamut

The number of approaches to tax relief matches the number of City Council hopefuls.

By JANET ZINK
Published February 19, 2007


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TAMPA - When it comes to property tax relief, Tampa City Council candidates support a range of solutions.

Joe Redner, the strip club owner who is making a fifth run for elected office, rejects such ideas as capping local budgets and increasing exemptions, calling them "confusing as hell."

His suggestion: Cut the city's property tax rate by 30 percent.

"I'm a simple man," said Redner, a candidate for the city-wide District 1 seat.

His idea would cost the city about $51-million based on this year's property tax revenue.

That's a lot, but it's not too far from what Gov. Charlie Crist's proposal would cost the city.

Crist has suggested doubling the homestead exemption to $50,000, making the 3 percent Save Our Homes cap on annual assessments portable to new homes and extending the cap to businesses, second homes and other non-homesteaded property. That would cost the city about $31-million, not including the portability proposal, according to city finance director Bonnie Wise.

Redner said fiddling with the tax system seems to make things "worse and worse and worse" and results in inequities.

Crist's solution, he said, would require new Florida residents to pay significantly higher property taxes to pay for local government services.

"Eventually you're treating some group or a lot of the groups unfairly," Redner said.

He suggests cutting the city property tax rate by 2 mills. The current rate is 6.408 mills, with one mill equaling $1 for every $1,000 of property value. Redner's proposal would save the owner of a $250,000 home about $500 a year.

Other council candidates have a more conventional approach than Redner's.

Rick Barcena, one of Redner's opponents for the District 1 seat, supports a spending cap similar to one adopted by the Hillsborough County Commission.

Commissioners voted this month to limit the growth of a sizable portion of the county's annual budget to the levels of population growth and inflation.

Julie Jenkins and Denise Chavez, also candidates in District 1, support a spending cap as well as Crist's proposals.

The Tampa City Council rolled back the millage rate this year for the first time in 20 years.

The 2-percent rollback saved the average homeowner about $24 a year and cut $3.3-million from Mayor Pam Iorio's proposed budget.

But for four years, the city enjoyed huge increases in property tax revenue and the quality of life in Tampa hasn't improved, Chavez said.

The city's budget reached $725-million this year. About $164-million came from property taxes, a 20 percent increase over the previous year, driven by a booming real estate market that boosted property valuations.

"Are our streets better? Is our water system better? What's better? We have more speed bumps," Chavez said.

But Gwen Miller, who holds the District 1 seat and is running for re-election, said the city's property tax rate and budgeting should remain as it is.

"The city's not wasting money," she said. "We've been doing fine. We haven't had any problems."

Miller said Crist's proposal would cause the city's budget to "dwindle down to nothing."

And she said she won't support another rate cut this year.

"If we do it two years in a row it's just going to hurt the city," she said.

Randy Baron, another District 1 candidate, thinks the city can cut taxes without hurting essential services.

He suggests that the city spend only a percentage of its property tax revenue increases - maybe 80 percent - and give the rest back to the taxpayers.

"We're not really rolling back the budget, we're growing it at a slower rate," he said.

District 2 candidate Shawn Harrison, who has represented north Tampa for the past eight years and is now seeking the at-large seat, said he really wants to put the squeeze on local government budgets.

That will force them to pay for programs by other means - such as privatization, he said.

He supports Crist's Save Our Homes portability proposal and the governor's suggestion of creating a similar program for businesses, as well as spending caps for local governments and rolling back millage rates.

"It is prudent to see what happens in Tallahassee. But I don't think people think that there is any reason not to continue to cut, no matter what Tallahassee does. People are fed up," he said.

Harrison's opponent for the District 2 seat, Mary Mulhern, says Crist offers simplistic solutions to a complicated problem. She cautions against reacting to public outcry without thinking about a time when property taxes might not be such a huge source of revenue for local governments.

"So we had a big increase this year. It's going to be going down," she said. "Real estate in Florida is boom and bust."

That does mean she doesn't support tax cuts, Mulhern said.

But she wants to work closely with the city administration to create a sound budget that will support them.

Julie Brown, a contender for the District 4 seat that includes South Tampa, supports both Crist's proposal and a spending cap for the city.

"If you give the local governments a certain amount of money, they're going to spend it," she said. "If you give them a cap they'll be more prudent."

Brown advocates quarterly audits of the city budget to weed out wasteful spending.

John Dingfelder, one of Brown's opponents in the District 4 race and a sitting City Council member, said his opinion on the governor's proposal or other solutions is irrelevant.

"What's important is what the city can do," he said.

Any new statewide property tax reform plan isn't likely to be in effect before the city sets its next budget, he said, so he would support rolling back the millage rate again this year. How much is hard to say at this point, but he predicts it would be a little more substantial than the last one.

"As long as the assessments continue to go up at the rate they've been going up," he said. "We have to respond and reduce the millage rate accordingly."

[Last modified February 19, 2007, 05:46:26]


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