Amendment 1 creates a rift

Police and fire chiefs, once solid allies of Charlie Crist's, decry the state tax-cut proposal.

By STEVE BOUSQUET, Tallahassee Bureau Chief
Published January 24, 2008

TALLAHASSEE - As a state senator, Charlie Crist's support for public safety earned him the tag "Chain Gang Charlie." As governor, his first priority was to target probation violators.

But Amendment 1 has opened a major rift between Crist and Florida's public safety establishment.

As Crist works for a proposal that would cut property taxes for homeowners and make it easier for them to carry a tax cap to a new house, he's under fire from police chiefs, firefighters and some sheriffs.

They say an earlier property tax rate rollback approved by Crist and the Legislature has already forced cuts in their budgets and Amendment 1 will make it worse at a time when taxpayers want more services, not less.

"My community keeps screaming for more traffic law enforcement efforts," said Largo police Chief Lester Aradi, a member of the Florida Police Chiefs Association, which joined the opposition Wednesday.

Police chiefs also said that adding portability to the Save Our Homes tax cap will magnify the inequities in Florida's tax system.

Some sheriffs also oppose the tax proposal, and a statewide firefighters' group is opposed.

Crist has described the predictions of police and firefighter layoffs as a scare tactic. On Wednesday, he said it was wrong to think that responsible local government officials would endanger public safety.

"I don't believe there will be a dropoff, whether it's fire protection or police protection," Crist said. "Most people in local government are good, responsible stewards."

He also suggested that rank-and-file public safety workers are more supportive of tax relief than their leaders.

Two other influential public safety groups, the Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association and Florida Police Benevolent Association, have taken no stand on Amendment 1. They're not fighting Crist, but they're not helping him, either.

Bob Carver, president of the Florida Professional Firefighters union, questioned how local governments can absorb the anticipated $9.3-billion in tax cuts over five years when more than half of some cities' budgets is spent on public safety.

"I don't understand the math," Carver said. "He's forsaking public safety in favor of a tax reduction, and that's where we respectfully disagree with him."

In Largo, a city of 76,000, Chief Aradi said he has fewer officers per 1,000 residents than he used to have, and fewer than nearby cities.

"Who's to determine what functions we close down?" Aradi said. "Do we shut down the library where kids get to go after school and stay off the streets? These are all tough decisions."

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or 850 224-7263.