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Local leaders plot strategy
Having accepted tax reform is coming, government officials discuss what to do about it.
By WILL VAN SANT
Published June 14, 2007
ORLANDO - As Florida lawmakers in Tallahassee moved Wednesday toward a broad overhaul of the state's property tax system, local government leaders were some 230 miles away, plotting strategy and revenge.
They've accepted, albeit bitterly, that the state Legislature is likely to adopt the first phase of its plan during the current special session, capping property tax collections next year at 2007 levels and imposing further cuts of up to 9 percent.
But with unity and the right message, those gathered here for the annual Florida Association of Counties convention hope they can block voter approval of the second phase, which calls for beefing up tax breaks for homesteaded homeowners.
Their message to voters, who might be asked to approve the Super Homestead as early as January: State lawmakers are stripping communities of their ability to self-govern.
"That is the most egregious thing, " said Susan Latvala, a Pinellas County Commissioner whose term as the association's president ends today. "They are taking away our authority to govern the people who elected us."
Collier County Commissioner Fred Coyle struck the same note, saying people in his community were fed up with state dictates.
"I am going to tell them how they have been betrayed, " Coyle said. "And if we can do that, I think we can have a big impact on the next general election."
Betrayal is a harsh word, but it was consistent with others, such as "dictators" and "disgust, " that many of the 420 local government officials attending the gathering at Renaissance Orlando Resort at SeaWorld used referring to state leaders.
Officials paid a $325 registration fee and $142 a night to attend the convention, which began Tuesday and ends Friday. Private companies that do business with local governments spent a total of $236, 000 to have booths or sponsor events at the convention and were to have provided some measure of leisure, including a "Death by Chocolate" reception sponsored by Waste Management and a golf outing.
The golf was cancelled and the reception "scaled back, " Latvala said, after the Legislature announced this week's special session. Organizers realized such events might appear unseemly during a time when local government spending has become such an explosive issue.
Tax issue looms large
For government policy nerds, the convention was a bonanza, with all manner of workshops and guest speakers. One could walk through the exposition hall and grab a free Waste Management letter opener, a bottle of water emblazoned with Grubbs Emergency Services or learn from state agriculture officials how to deal with the influx into Florida of "Africanized" bees.
Though the focus of many of the workshops was growth management, events in Tallahassee loomed large and dominated conversation. Some attendees paid visits to the Grouper room, to catch a live feed from the state Legislature.
The dismay over the situation was so extreme that some of the questions being asked in hallways bordered on the paranoid, some of the participants admitted.
Is the attempt to cut tax bills an effort to keep the housing boom going and appease the state's powerful building industry? Did state lawmakers embrace taxation this year to divert attention from the insurance crisis?
Beyond speculation, however, was concrete discussion of how to turn the tables on state leaders who have turned on local officials during the property tax debate and stand to make political gains if their efforts succeed.
One avenue is a legal challenge by local governments against state lawmakers. Some commissioners said they saw grounds for action in both the first and second phases of the Legislature's plan. But others worried that voters would become angry at public money being used for governments to litigate against one another - particularly over tax breaks.
Another option, said Sarasota County Commissioner Jon Thaxton, is to mount a public campaign arguing that the tax overhaul encroaches on local control and accusing state leaders of hypocrisy.
For instance, Thaxton pointed out, the state is sitting on huge trust funds that were meant to aid local communities and defray their costs for housing and transportation.
"We would never be able to do that at the local level, " he said. "We would be voted out of office."