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Mobile home rights fail with tax break

Two lawmakers from Pinellas see their bills die when a deal falls through.

By SHELBY OPPEL

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 5, 2000


TALLAHASSEE -- An effort to bolster the rights of Florida's 1.2-million mobile home residents has died in the state Legislature.

Senate Majority Leader Jack Latvala and Rep. Gus Bilirakis, both Republicans from Palm Harbor, sponsored different bills that sought to further protect residents from potential abuses by mobile home park owners. The lawmakers are from Pinellas County, which has more than 53,000 mobile homes, the most in the state.

Park owners, who say Florida law already favors residents, opposed most of the changes, which they said would tilt the balance farther against them. The industry holds much sway in the House, counting powerful House Speaker John Thrasher among its allies.

Despite those dynamics, Latvala had hoped to negotiate a trade. If the Legislature granted a sales tax break to mobile home buyers -- a boon for buyers, sellers and manufacturers -- the industry had agreed to consider the proposals aimed at residents' rights. The proposals included making park owners bear more of the cost for park improvements and provide better notice of rent increases.

But the tax break didn't make it into the Legislature's roughly $500-million tax cut package, part of a tentative $50.9-billion state budget that lawmakers expect to approve before the annual session ends today.

"The House would never agree to the tax money, so we couldn't get any meaningful protections for (mobile home) residents," Latvala said.

The tax break would have reduced by one-third the sales tax on mobile homes, costing the state between $16-million and $20-million in lost revenue, said Frank Williams, who heads the industry-backed Florida Manufactured Housing Association.

Williams said Thursday that the two sides logged 20 hours of conference calls last weekend, attempting to reach compromise on the changes Latvala sought.

"We had reached accord" on several issues, Williams said. But the negotiations depended on the tax break and ultimately, the money wasn't there.

"That was the ground rules that we put together when we started," Williams said.

A spokeswoman for Thrasher said he wasn't made aware of the tax break request until last week, too late for it to be considered. Nor did Thrasher intend to allow the House to take up Latvala and Bilirakis' bills, said spokeswoman Katie Baur. Thrasher, a pro-business Republican from Jacksonville, has blocked similar measures in the past.

Currently, state law allows park owners to divide the total cost of some park improvements among residents, even if some lots are vacant or undeveloped. Bilirakis' bill would have forced park owners to pay the cost for those vacant lots.

Latvala's measure went further. His bill would have forced park owners to work harder to justify rent increases and to tell new buyers about annual increases before they sign a lease, among other changes.

Park owners, however, say rents have decreased in some parts of Florida and objected to the stricter disclosure. Another change, which would have forced park owners to give residents the first chance to buy a park, would hamper park owners' attempts to make a profitable sale, the industry argued.

Park owners also disagreed with a change that would have prevented them from passing on the one-time cost of water and sewer hook-ups to residents. Park owners argued the measure would have prevented them from passing on the costs of any improvements to home owners, a change that could have put some park owners out of business, they said.

Latvala, who enjoys his reputation as a champion for residents' rights, sounded deflated by the failure. Will he push for the changes next year?

"We'll try," he said.

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