tampabay.com

Are our legislators being hypocritical?

By C.T. Bowen
Published May 6, 2007


See if you can comprehend this juxtaposition.

Local governments are such exorbitant spenders, they must be reined in. It is the thinking behind the unresolved public policy debate in Tallahassee in the just-concluded legislative session.

It has been portrayed as tax relief, but what it amounts to is the people in the capital believe the people in city hall spend too much money available to them from growing tax bases and rising property values.

Now, consider this. The final week of the legislative session lawmakers approved a new state budget giving Pasco County $7.5-million in no-strings-attached economic development money to use to lure new industry. The reasoning? Pasco doesn't have enough dough of its own to match the recruiting offers to high-tech and research companies from larger county governments.

You're not alone if you're scratching your head.

"If we're not proper stewards of the public purse, why are they tripping over themselves to send more money down here?" asked Zephyrhills City Manager Steve Spina.

Good question.

There are others. How come state lawmakers failed to follow their own legislative intent while drafting the state education budget financed with property taxes?

Did they roll back to the rates from a couple of years ago? No, not at all. They used tax money from growth and higher assessments to pay the bills.

Call them hypocritical for not doing themselves what they intend to do to others.

Or, call them progressive for recognizing that artificial limits on tax bases won't allow the state to meet the public education needs of Floridians.

State Sen. Mike Fasano put out a news release touting the money flowing to the Pasco School District, more than $474-million in the coming year, a 9 percent increase compared to the statewide average of less than 7 percent.

Friday, Rep. John Legg fired off an e-mail proclaiming "good news." Pasco's school district will get an extra $2.9-million in school construction money because it is a high growth county.

Those are the kind of e-mails local governments won't be sending to constituents and to the press.

Exactly what the Legislature will do to change the property tax structure remains in limbo until a special legislative session in June. Meanwhile, the people with the spreadsheets have to devise some sort of a budget for the coming year, even though they won't have a good idea on how much money will be coming.

Replacing that 30-year-old fire truck in Zephyrhills? Not this year. The new detective the police chief wants to help solve crimes? Iffy, at best.

Speaking of crime, Sheriff Bob White is laying the ground work for an expanded department. Tuesday evening, during a memorial service in Dade City for officers slain in the line of duty, he let that be known loud and clear.

"This may be uncertain times for the taxpayer, but beware, the criminal opposes and exalts himself over everyone, " said White. "I, in good conscience, am compelled to expect all that is necessary to best support our deputy sheriffs as they strive to meet the daily challenges of an affluent and rapidly growing community."

But new deputies cost in the neighborhood of $90, 000 per year and the sheriff's budget is the largest single entity in the county's general revenue account. That could put the red light in front of most of the new green-and-whites.

In New Port Richey, downtown redevelopment could be stifled for a long time. The city could default on previously borrowed money that paid for its new $14-million recreation center and other improvements around town if one of the proposed tax reform plans is approved. The bonds are to be paid off with future revenue generated by rising property values in the city.

Unless somebody does something unanticipated like cut the tax rolls back to 2001 or 2003 levels and force local governments to work with less.

What that rollback date will be and how much the homestead and Save Our Homes exemptions will be worth should be hashed out in the special legislative session. It is scheduled for June 12-22 at a cost to taxpayers of $40, 000 per day or as much as $400, 000 to figure out how much local spending will have to cut.

Those state lawmakers sure know how to lead by example.