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Not everyone wants property tax relief

Published April 28, 2007

[Times photo: Edmund D. Fountain]
City of Eatonville Mayor Anthony Grant, stands along Kennedy Boulevard, Eatonville's main street. The town stands to lose revenue because of proposed tax cut exemptions that would help small communities in rural areas keep income. Eatonville is a small town, but sits amid the sprawl of greater Orlando.

TALLAHASSEE - The towns of Eatonville and Opa-locka have survived economic and social hardships over the last century but now they face a different kind of ruin: property tax reform.

Eatonville and Opa-locka are caught in a largely silent fight for their financial survival, as lawmakers debate how far back to roll tax rates as part of a broad effort to cut property taxes. Although property tax negotiations are stalled, all three proposals still being considered - the House's, the Senate's and Gov. Charlie Crist's - would slash millions out of local government budgets.

Although lawmakers have carved out wide exemptions for poor cities and counties around the state, Eatonville and Opa-locka don't qualify. And adding to the drama is this: These two towns have storied histories as enclaves of African-Americans.

Lawmakers have told these cities and a few others that they will look out for them. Senate Majority Leader Daniel Webster, a chief negotiators on property tax plans, said lawmakers are committed to these cities, especially given their historic significance.

"We have been talking all along about doing something for the historic black cities like Opa-locka and Eatonville, " he said. "It's going to happen."

But there's nothing in writing.

"We're sitting here cringing, because it would be absolutely devastating to our ability to continue to deliver services to our municipality, " said Mayor Anthony Grant, who was born in Eatonville. "Especially given our history, it's just devastating."

Incorporated in 1886, Eatonville proclaims itself the first black town incorporated in America.

But at barely a square mile in size, the small town next to Maitland is financially vulnerable. For 2007, the town expects its revenue from property taxes to be $1.4-million. The combined cost for police and fire protection (which is contracted from Maitland) is $1.3-million, according to the town's budget.

Opa-locka is bigger but no better off. The city already is charging residents 9.8 mills, or $9.80 for every $1, 000 of taxable value, and the state cap is 10. This year, half of the city's $14-million budget will come from property taxes, with the rest from franchise and telecommunication fees and federal and state grants. The police department costs $4.45-million to run, as Opa-locka struggles with high crime.

After a week of negotiation, the Senate plan still includes no special exceptions, while the House plan has some protections from tax rollbacks for poor cities in poor counties or poor cities in rural areas.

Yet, Eatonville and Opa-locka would not be protected because they're in two of the state's richest counties, Orange and Miami-Dade. And they're not in rural areas, like other historic and predominantly African-American cities that also face financial problems under the tax plans, such as Midway and Quincy in the Panhandle or Pahokee or South Bay on the shores of Lake Okeechobee.

"They would not survive either tax plan, " said Sen. Gary Siplin, D-Orlando, who is pushing for a written guarantee.

Senate Minority Leader Steven Geller has assured Siplin and others that the cities will be protected. Last week, he had in his coat pocket a piece of notebook paper with a list of his priorities. Protecting historic cities was second on the list.

The small cities of Opa-locka, Eatonville, Pahokee, South Bay and Gretna have all been on the state's "financial emergency" list at some point in the last six years, which means they have been in such financial dire straits they couldn't cover basic needs such as payroll or bond debt. In those cases, the governor's office has stepped in.

City leaders predict the property tax plans could push them back under the state's watch.

Opa-locka was founded in 1926, and is known for its unique Arabian-themed architecture, with painted domed tops and minarets. Several of its buildings, including city hall and the rail road station are on the state's "Black Heritage Trail."

Unlike Eatonville, which was founded as an African-American community, Opa-locka became predominantly black over the years, through white flight, as the naval base at the Opa-locka airport closed in the 1950s.

Opa-locka Mayor Joseph Kelley has come to Tallahassee twice this year and has met with House Speaker Marco Rubio.

"I understand that they've carved out some exceptions, but I also understand we're not one of them, and I've made that case, " said Kelley who has been mayor since 2004. "There is a cry for relief, and I certainly understand it, but I just think it has to be a balance."

Eatonville Mayor Grant has talked with lawmakers, but he's skeptical of their assurances.

"It makes me question what is the state's commitment to preserve history, " Grant said. "It appears that they're going to turn a blind eye to these gems that have enriched the state, and that concerns me."

Times staff researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report.


Founded: 1886

Population: 2, 390

Noteworthy: home of famed author Zora Neal Hurston

Size: 1.09 square miles

Median household income: $35, 092


Founded: 1926

Population: 15, 763

Noteworthy: City Hall is on the state's Black Heritage Trail

Size: 4.47 square miles

Key economic statistic: Thirty-five percent of residents live below poverty level (2000).

[Last modified April 28, 2007, 01:02:35]

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