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On taxes, counties try to speak as one

Anyone can have talking points. Counties have a 21-page manual. "Scare tactics," Crist says.

By ALEX LEARY AND STEVE BOUSQUET
Published May 22, 2007


TALLAHASSEE - As state lawmakers seek a deal on property tax cuts, county commissioners are being urged to speak with one loud voice on the "potentially devastating" impact those cuts will have on services people want most.

The Florida Association of Counties has distributed a "communications tool kit" to help local officials influence public opinion through the media, the Internet and volunteers.

"Focus special attention on cuts to public safety and to local social services agencies and nonprofit profit community groups," the guide urges. "Send out letters to participants in your recreation programs from soccer to summer camps informing them of the impacts cuts may have on that program."

The 21-page manual instructs county officials to stage news conferences at libraries, social service agencies and public health departments - places "where the actual impact of cuts would be felt."

Gov. Charlie Crist has been pointedly critical of such a strategy, calling it "scare tactics" by local officials.

"Not one law enforcement officer will be fired and shame on the local governments who put that fear in you," Crist told members of a West Palm Beach civic club Monday morning, according to the Palm Beach Post.

Rep. Dean Cannon, one of the lead negotiators in the tax talks, echoed that sentiment.

"To the extent that they might be suggesting something contrary to what their actual intentions are, I think people would view that as dishonest."

The Winter Park Republican spoke after a group of lawmakers began to discuss a new approach to cutting taxes that gives homestead owners exemptions based on a percentage of property value. The panel is trying to reach agreement before a special session begins June 12.

The Florida Association of Counties, which promotes the interests of the 67 county governments, created the guide in preparation for the session so local officials can speak more with more authority and cohesion.

The group says the guide is to provide a realistic view of the cuts, which could reach into the billions, not to promote fear-mongering. "It is the antithesis of that," said spokeswoman Cragin Mosteller.

The coordinated effort to sway public opinion is not unlike the talking points lawmakers have been urged to use throughout the debate. During the Passover-Easter break, some House Republicans fanned out across the state to host public workshops.

But the tool kit is unusual for its level of detail, right down to coaching commissioners not to actually use phrases like "my messages are" in communications, which can convey a rehearsed feel.

The effort underscores the high stakes in a property tax battle that has pitted state and local governments against one another.

"The cuts they are talking about are meat and bone," said Pinellas County Commissioner Susan Latvala, who is president of the Florida Association of Counties. Latvala has relied on the guide for her own media outreach and in giving speeches.

A draft speech criticizes state officials for not seeking more feedback on the impacts property tax cuts will have on their constituents.

The speech says: "It is perplexing to your county commissioners that as radical proposals have emerged in Tallahassee, state leaders have solicited little input from counties on the real impacts of cuts on citizens back home."

Many legislators blame counties for zealous spending during the past few years, as real estate values boomed. House Speaker Marco Rubio's office noted Monday that since 2002, tax levies for city, county and special taxing districts have grown by $8.8-billion, or 84 percent.

"The fundamental question is: Should government be allowed to grow at a pace twice as fast as the personal income of the people who have to pay the taxes?" Rubio asked.

The stepped-up effort by counties is targeted to the June 12 start of a special legislative session on taxes. By coincidence, that day is also the start of the counties' annual four-day conference at Sea World.

With county spending under such intense scrutiny, the county group has changed its preliminary schedule of events after parts were published on the St. Petersburg Times' online political column, the Buzz.

A new schedule omits references to a golf outing, "president's party and family fun night" and a "death by chocolate" reception.

County officials in Hillsborough and Pasco said Monday they had not seen the tool kit, or that it did not play into their discussions.

Hillsborough County Commissioner Mark Sharpe said he did not need the talking points. Last week he won approval from other commissioners for an analysis of actual programs and services that would need to be cut to better understand what Hillsborough faces. Commissioners previously have hesitated at undertaking such an effort, fearing the perception of whining at a time when the Legislature is facing public demands to trim property taxes.

Pasco Commissioner Ann Hildebrand acknowledged she is worried the push for tax cuts by lawmakers was working against the county interest in staving off deep cuts that could hurt services.

Hildebrand said the county should not start pushing people to speak out on its side yet.

"Plans are changing as fast as people are changing shoes. From where I stand, there doesn't seem to be any consensus."

Times staff writers Bill Varian and David DeCamp contributed to this report.