A tax break stays on shelf
Counties and cities can double an exemption for low-income seniors. But most haven't.
By TAMARA EL-KHOURY
Published April 29, 2007
Florida voters overwhelmingly said in November that they wanted to double a special property tax break for low-income seniors.
But with barely a month to go before cities and counties need to adopt the new tax break for 2007, neither Pinellas nor Hillsborough county nor any of their municipalities have officially adopted the bigger break.
Part of the problem is the new tax break's complexity -many officials don't understand it. But another reality is the ongoing property tax debate in Tallahassee, which has left those leaders who do understand the new break hesitant to cut their revenue further.
"Shame on the counties and the cities that have not gone forward and have not given our low-income seniors some additional relief, " said state Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, who was among the legislators who pushed to put the measure on November's ballot. But his own Pasco County hasn't acted. Nor has Hernando County.
Tampa has signaled it wants to double the break, but has yet to file the paperwork needed to do so. Only one Pinellas city, Redington Beach, has adopted an ordinance, but it won't take effect until 2008.
Pinellas County Property Appraiser Jim Smith has heard inquiries from just a handful of cities. As of last week, his office hadn't received notice from any local governments taking advantage of the additional tax break this year. Nor has Hillsborough County Property Appraiser Rob Turner.
Even AARP members haven't called in to ask about the exemption, said state spokesman David Bruns. "With all the talk flying back and forth with extending homestead exemptions, extending property relief, it's easy for citizens to lose track of the senior oriented part of this legislation, " Bruns said.
The tax break in question is an expansion of an optional, extra homestead exemption that cities and counties can provide for low-income seniors who own their homes. To qualify, seniors 65 and older must apply annually and have an income of $23, 414 or less.
Some breaks allowed
Before November, qualified seniors could receive an extra homestead exemption reducing their home's taxable value. Most cities and counties that embraced the break - including Pinellas County, Hillsborough County and 19 of their municipalities - allowed the maximum break under law, $25, 000.
In Pinellas County last year, 14, 964 seniors received the tax break, which translated to a reduction between $34 and $130 in property taxes, depending on the municipality.
The November vote gave municipalities the authority to increase the exemption to $50, 000. When combined with the $25, 000 exemption all homesteaded property owners receive, the new break means qualified seniors in participating communities would be able to exempt up to $75, 000 from their home's taxable value.
The effect: Qualified seniors living in a home with a taxable value of $200, 000 would be paying taxes as if it was a $125, 000 home.
But that new leeway hasn't been clear to some city leaders, whom seem to just now be understanding their new option.
A new state law implementing the additional tax break authority, signed by the governor on April 9, states that the exemption "may not exceed $50, 000, " but it makes no reference to the traditional $25, 000 homestead exemption all homesteaded property owners receive.
"Where does it say we're allowed to go up to $75, 000?" Oldsmar council member Janice Miller asked in a meeting Monday. "This says that this bill was to allow seniors $50, 000, which we did."
Also weighing on some Oldsmar leaders minds is the ongoing property tax debate in Tallahassee, which threatens to curtail property tax revenue for local governments everywhere. Is it wise to voluntarily cut Oldsmar's revenue another $13, 000 - the estimated benefit for an expanded break?
Similar confusion ensued at a recent Dunedin City Commission meeting. When new City Manager Robert DiSpirito asked commissioners if they'd like to double the homestead exemption for low-income seniors, several responded they thought they already had.
It wasn't until days later, after more questions and more phone calls to the property appraiser's office that DiSpirito determined that the city had approved only $25, 000 of exemptions to low-income seniors. The other $25, 000 was exemptions given to all homestead owners. The commission will reconsider the matter Thursday.
But for unincorporated parts of Pinellas County and in Clearwater and St. Petersburg, leaders have agreed there's just too much uncertainty to act.
Waiting on Tallahassee
Pinellas County Commissioner Calvin Harris, who led the 2005 effort adopting the senior tax benefit, said plans to double the exemption have been discussed, but commissioners want to see what happens in Tallahassee.
Clearwater, which just increased its exemption to $25, 000 last year, is adopting a similar wait-and-see strategy this year, said budget director Tina Wilson.
St. Petersburg's leaders are also waiting for results from Tallahassee, said internal services administrator Michael Connors.
"It's just not fair to the balance of our constituents and the seniors themselves to increase homestead exemptions when we don't know if were going to have money to provide basic governmental services to the entire community, " he said.
Staff writers Will Van Sant and Bill Varian contributed to this report.
Optional property tax breaks
Pinellas County, Hillsborough County and 19 of their cities already have an optional property tax break for low-income seniors. But only one, Redington Beach, so far has filed the paperwork to increase the additional homestead exemption up to $50, 000, though it won't be implemented until 2008.
A list of participating communities and the additional homestead exemption they now allow:
Unincorporated parts of Hillsborough County, $25, 000.
Tampa, $25, 000.
Temple Terrace, $25, 000.
Unincorporated parts of Pinellas County, $25, 000.
Belleair Beach, $25, 000.
Clearwater, $25, 000.
Dunedin, $25, 000.
Indian Rocks Beach, $25, 000.
Kenneth City, $25, 000.
Largo, $15, 000.
Madeira Beach, $25, 000.
North Redington Beach, $25, 000.
Oldsmar, $25, 000.
Pinellas Park, $25, 000.
Redington Shores, $20, 000.
Safety Harbor, $25, 000.
St. Pete Beach, $20, 000.
St. Petersburg, $15, 000.
Seminole, $25, 000.
Tarpon Springs, $25, 000.
Treasure Island, $25, 000.
Source: Pinellas, Hillsborough property appraisers' offices
[Last modified April 29, 2007, 00:37:40]
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