Threat of local cuts isn't a bluff

By SUSAN LATVALA Special to the Times
Published May 1, 2007

As we head into the final, frantic week of Florida's annual legislative session, state leaders are once again turning up the misleading rhetoric against local governments in their zeal to pass property tax reform. If they're successful, the results in your community will be dramatic.

State leaders are claiming that wild spending by cities and counties is the prime reason that some property owners have seen their tax bills soar. And they're insisting that local governments are bluffing when they say essential programs and services will face deep cuts if their Tallahassee-mandated rollbacks are approved.

Make no mistake about it: Crucial local programs and services that you depend on every day are facing real cuts or elimination if state leaders prevail and slash local government revenues by tens of billions of dollars over the next five years. These cuts will undoubtedly impact the quality of life in your community in some manner.

For example, St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker has warned that "people will need to understand it will have a significant negative impact on services that can be provided."

Hillsborough County has cautioned that deep cuts would likely hit the Sheriff's Office and rescue department budgets; it's weighing hiring freezes and curtailing contributions to local nonprofit agencies. Sarasota County has evaluated how cuts could harm the community's bus system, land purchase program and local road improvements.

These are real, current discussions that local governments are having as they struggle to figure out how they will handle these state-driven cuts. This is not political posturing.

Is this how you want property tax reform to go? It doesn't have to be this way. We can achieve property tax relief and protect our local communities if all sides are willing to work toward thoughtful solutions on this complex problem.

While they rail against local governments, state leaders conveniently neglect to tell you an important fact: The largest portion of your property tax bill - about 30 percent on average - is the "Required Local Effort" you pay to fund the state's public schools.

Remarkably, state leaders are planning to increase your local property taxes for public schools this year by $545-million - or about 7.4 percent - at the same time they're demanding local governments reduce property taxes.

Additionally, state leaders fail to tell you they are also sending down unfunded mandates for programs such as Medicaid, juvenile justice, mental health treatment in jails, local environmental protection and growth management. Local governments pay more than $1-billion annually for these state responsibilities.

This shouldn't be a state government versus local government debate. We agree with Gov. Charlie Crist, the Florida Legislature and property owners that our current property tax system is broken and that reform is needed.

Counties should be part of any solution. We support relief for businesses and nonhomesteaded property owners who have faced the tax burden shift brought on by Save Our Homes. We also would accept reasonable limits on local government revenue growth. But we cannot accept tens of billions of dollars in state-mandated cuts that would harm urban and rural counties in vastly different ways. The current dialogue in Tallahassee is all about further eroding local control of taxes and spending.

It's time to end the unproductive rhetoric and finger-pointing in Tallahassee. Our state leaders should strive to adopt reforms that bring relief to the property owners who truly need it, while at the same time avoiding devastating cuts in your hometown and mine.

Susan Latvala is a Pinellas County commissioner and president of the Florida Association of Counties.