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Portability faces challenge
A suit is filed in state court, claiming the provision further discriminates against new homeowners.
By Alex Leary, Times Staff Writer
Published February 13, 2008
TALLAHASSEE - An unheeded warning that the Amendment 1 property tax cut is vulnerable to legal challenge is about to be tested in court.
A lawyer for three new Florida homeowners has filed a suit in state court questioning the provision in Amendment 1 that allows people to carry accrued tax savings under Save Our Homes to a new home - a concept known as "portability."
"It sharpens the blade and ratchets up the discrimination," Tallahassee lawyer William Owen said Tuesday.
Experts cautioned the Legislature and Gov. Charlie Crist last year that the plan was susceptible, and a successful case could have dire consequences for an already shaky state economy.
The suit seeks refunds for first-time homeowners and anyone who moved to Florida in the past four years and pays more taxes as a result because Save Our Homes did not shelter them from the recent run up in property values.
In place since 1995, Save Our Homes guarantees that assessments on homesteads will not increase by more than 3 percent annually. The longer a person has been in a home, the more tax equity he enjoys.
That is why neighbors in nearly identical homes can have wildly different property tax bills.
Owen filed a suit on behalf of three homeowners across the state in November challenging Save Our Homes. The homeowners live in Leon, Charlotte and Palm Beach counties. He amended that complaint Friday to challenge portability as well.
Robert and Katherine Bruner moved to Florida in 2005 and received homestead status in Leon County in 2007. That year, their tax bill was $8,100 - up 39 percent from the year before. In the four years prior to their purchase, taxes went up only $11.09, according to the complaint.
The suit contends that Save Our Homes is unconstitutional because it treats homeowners differently, violating provisions of the U.S. Constitution granting the right to travel.
Portability, Owen and others argue, gives in-state home buyers an even greater advantage over new arrivals.
The Legislature was well aware of the problem when it went into special session in September. So lawmakers tried to add provisions to the tax cut package to minimize potential legal problems.
The Senate called for a break for first-time home buyers who do not yet enjoy the Save Our Homes' 3 percent annual assessment cap. The House proposed a different break, that would benefit both new buyers and those who purchased homes in recent years.
But the final product voters approved on Jan. 29 contained neither of those provisions.
Crist, who was one main advocates for portability, said at the time the state could successfully defend portability. A lawyer hired by Crist's office held the same opinion, but that was at least partly based on a plan that included breaks for first-time home buyers.
Crist was traveling Tuesday afternoon and could not be reached. A spokeswoman did not return messages.
Owen said he is considering another lawsuit that would seek relief for any Florida homeowner who moved before portability became law, thus putting themselves on an unequal plane with others.
He has already lost one round. A lawsuit filed by out-of-state residents who own second homes in Florida was dismissed. The case is on appeal.