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Politics

Tax cost for unlucky 31: $25-million

A proposed tax rate rollback would spare 30 counties. Unlucky Nassau just misses the cut.

By ALEX LEARY
Published March 22, 2007


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TALLAHASSEE - What's the difference between 30 and 31?

By lawmakers' calculations, it's $25-million.

Nassau County is in a great location, on the state's northeastern tip - the home of historic Fernandina Beach and ritzy Amelia Island.

But when it comes to the Florida House's property tax plan, Nassau's position is the absolute worst.

Republicans have decided to exempt the state's 30 least property-rich counties from a tax rate rollback. The plan would spare them millions in lost revenue.

Nassau County - at unlucky No. 31 - would stand to lose $25-million, about 18 percent of its budget.

"It would be devastating," County Commissioner Barry Holloway said. "That's cold hard dollars we couldn't collect.

"Where do you cut back? Parks? Fire? Police?" Holloway asked.

The House plan is still evolving; the latest version was released Wednesday. But the rollback is still being discussed.

"I don't care if we're 31 or 35. They just shouldn't do this," said Commissioner Jim Higginbotham. "The whole thing is ridiculous."

Thirty miles north of Jacksonville, Nassau County has a population of just under 70,000. The largest employers are a pair of paper mills and the tourism industry.

Yet despite its size, Nassau does not meet the state definition of a fiscally constrained county, one in which 1 mill creates no more than $5-million. One mill in Nassau generates $7.2-million.

The exemption for the 30 counties came after heavy criticism from rural counties and some Republican lawmakers who represent them. (No Tampa Bay area counties are on the list.)

But Nassau's state representative, Republican Aaron Bean of Fernandina Beach, voted for the rollback. He said he realized the county would not make the cut.

"I feel their pain," Bean said. "It's going to take some belt tightening, but we all are doing it."

Bean also noted that Friday, when the plan was approved by the House Policy and Budget Council, several Nassau County business owners spoke in favor of it. One accused local government of "scare tactics."

City and counties denied any embellishment and say they will have to make tough choices regarding law enforcement, libraries, parks and other services residents demand.

"If you take 18 percent out of our budget, you're probably not going to see any roads paved for a long time," said Nassau County Commissioner Mike Boyle.

Rep. Jack Seiler, D-Wilton Manors, one of the few lawmakers to vote against the plan, said the 30-county exemption does nothing to address the central assertion many lawmakers have leveled: that local government spending has been excessive.

Just because a county is poorer or richer than another does not answer that question, Seiler said. "Thirty-seven counties are getting penalized, and 30 are getting rewarded."

The fear may be premature, for now.

Even House Speaker Marco Rubio, R-Miami, has made it known that he prefers another proposal to swap property taxes on homesteads for a 2.5 percent increase in sales tax.

That plan, which would require a constitutional amendment, also carries a rollback on nonhomestead property, but it would not be as deep.

In the Senate, both Republicans and Democrats are beginning to wrestle with the property tax issue, and there seems to be less appetite for a deep rollback.

"People needn't read too much into what the House has done," said Sen. Jim King, R-Jacksonville, who represents part of Nassau County. "It's a bold move and insightful, but it is not without warts. It's a long way from being a fait accompli."

Population: 65,850

Median household income: $52,785

Largest private employers: Amelia Island Plantation, Ritz-Carlton, Smurfit-Stone paper mill

Source: Nassau County Economic Development Board

[Last modified March 22, 2007, 01:30:46]


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