Public input pushed to the end at tax forum

Representatives of local governments take most of the time, leaving little for others.

Published June 6, 2007

TAMPA - Hillsborough County residents got their one chance to address legislators on property tax reform Tuesday night without having to travel to Tallahassee for the special session next week.

But by the time the first member of the public got a chance to speak, it was three hours into a scheduled three-hour hearing, and a crowd that started about 250 strong at the University Area Community Center Complex dwindled to fewer than a 100.

Instead, representatives from local government dominated the show, generally exceeding their allotted time to urge Hillsborough County legislators to show restraint.

"We're the ones who pay the bills. We're your bosses, " said Paul Goss, a retiree from Thonotosassa, who showed up to protest skyrocketing property tax bills. "But we get the least amount of time to talk to you."

Arthenia Joyner, chairwoman for the Hillsborough legislative delegation, said at the outset that she would let city and county government officials speak first so residents would hear all sides of the argument for and against property tax reform plans before making their own comments.

But the scheduled 6 p.m. meeting started late, and after lengthy government presentations, residents had just two minutes to speak apiece.

Some of the local government leaders said they were frustrated, too. Despite some state proposals to trim next year's property tax proceeds by nearly 20 percent, some said legislators have not consulted the affected cities and counties.

Each expressed sympathy for legislators trying to address a public outcry over sharply rising property tax bills and similar increases in local government spending. They said local governments are trying to keep up with the public demand for new parks, libraries and other services.

They asked legislators to move more slowly and to target reforms at those hurting the most: small business and rental property owners, and those fearing a spike in their property taxes if they move to new homes.

"You all have a difficult job to do, " said Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio. "But as you make your decisions ... I ask you to respect local governments ability to absorb the changes quickly."

When the public finally got to speak, several urged the legislators to be judicious, warning of cuts to social services and other nonprofits. Some represented those same nonprofits.

Others were not too sympathetic to the concerns of local government officials. They said people are being forced to make hard decisions on family spending because of increased property taxes, and that some people are choosing to leave the state.

Steve O'Neal of Valrico blasted Hillsborough commissioners for taking the St. Pete Times Forum off of the tax roll because its main tenant, the Tampa Bay Lightning hockey team, is losing money.

"I had a bad year, " O'Neal said. "Take my house off the tax rolls."