Be deliberate on tax reform plans
By GEORGE CRETEKOS
Published May 31, 2007
Sometimes a problem is simple enough that a first-grade student can solve it; on other occasions, it is helpful to have a rocket scientist available. For Florida's current property tax dilemma, neither one has the answer, but neither does the Florida Legislature.
There is no question that Florida's property tax system needs to be revised.
That first-time home buyers and renters need relief is undeniable. That people who wish to move but cannot because of a lack of portability in the "Save Our Homes" cap is disastrous. That businesses and other properties are assessed at "highest and best use" instead of "current use" is unfair. That owners of second homes and new home buyers are taxed disproportionately to their neighbors is inequitable.
But instead of addressing these problems individually, the state of Florida believes it must shift the blame to its local and county governments by saying that these units of government - those units closest to the people - are not capable of assessing local needs and wants and that tax dollars are spent foolishly.
Then, when local leaders suggest that these state mandates will force a drastic reduction in services and programs provided to residents, it is called "whining."
Having recently become a member of the Clearwater City Council, I had hoped that cuts could be made without too much difficulty. But a closer look at Clearwater's budget reveals that approximately 50 percent of it goes to police and fire protection. In fact, those two departments receive as much money from the city of Clearwater as the city collects from all its property taxes.
When budget-cutting attention is shifted to parks, recreation, libraries and other programs, local officials are bombarded with residents who believe that these services are important to the quality of life of Clearwater residents.
In addition, a review of one's property tax bill reveals that the city of Clearwater receives approximately 25 percent of a resident's total property tax payment. In many cases, local taxpayers who have homesteaded property since 2001 have found that their taxes to the city have increased less than $100.
Yet state officials still attack. So it makes me wonder what the outcry from the state Capitol would be if the federal government told the state that the 6 percent sales tax must be slashed and state spending must be reduced.
Moreover, how fair is it for the Legislature to say that it is saving money by shifting to local agencies and school boards its responsibility to fund smaller classes, or to suggest a rollback in assessments to 2001 without employee salaries, insurance rates, health costs and energy prices, among others, being returned to 2001 levels?
In the coming weeks, each resident will have ample opportunity to discuss this issue with local state legislators. It is imperative that the problems be addressed, but the goal of meaningful tax reform must not be brushed over to get quick or seemingly popular results.
Florida recently has appointed a Tax Review Commission as mandated by the state Constitution. Tell our legislators to take care of those issues that we all agree upon now, as listed above, and let us digest the others as this nonpartisan commission does its work.
Simple answers do not always provide the best solutions, and in this case, unlike with the "solution" to our insurance crisis, it is best to be deliberate.
George Cretekos has served on the Clearwater City Council since March. Cretekos was an aide to U.S. Congressman C.W. Bill Young for more than 30 years.