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The staff of the Tampa Bay Times

Most Pinellas cities defer property tax break for low-income seniors



DUNEDIN -- Residents who voted for lower property taxes for poor senior citizens won't see their wish fulfilled in Dunedin for at least a year.

Amendment 11 to the Florida Constitution, which gave cities and counties the option of lowering taxes for certain seniors, passed with 61 percent of the vote statewide in November. Local governments now can offer an additional homestead exemption to qualified low-income seniors age 65 and older who have, for at least 25 years, owned their permanent residence that is now worth less than $250,000.

In order to take effect in 2013, local governments had to approve the exemption by last Friday. But in a 4-1 vote, Dunedin city commissioners rejected it for now, saying they want to gather more information during summer budget talks on how the tax break would impact city revenues.

"I think prudence is a touch of wisdom here," said Commissioner Ron Barnette.

"There's a good amount of data we don't have now," he said. "And I'd be begging too many questions that I'm unfortunately not in a position to answer now if we were to move ahead rapidly on this. ... I'd like to take our time and address this in a more succinct way this summer when we address other issues involving taxpayer money."

Pinellas County Property Appraiser Pam Dubov said Tuesday that North Redington Beach was the only one of Pinellas' 24 cities to approve the exemption for 2013.

In Dunedin, about 36 percent of voters supported the constitutional amendment in November, according to Pinellas supervisor of elections data. That same percentage was calculated when looking at Pinellas County as a whole.

The Dunedin City Commission's vote against an immediate exemption matched the recommendation of city staffers, who advised commissioners that immediately granting the exemption to 905 eligible Dunedin residents stood to "severely impact" the city's "bare bones" budget and lead to reductions in service.

The new amendment exempts 100 percent of a homesteaded property's assessed value, meaning eligible seniors wouldn't pay any property taxes to their respective city. (They would still be on the hook, however, for School Board and other taxes).

Officials estimate the measure would cost Dunedin at least $200,000 annually - an amount that would strain this year's finances in light of the economic recession. More details here.

In casting the lone dissenting vote, Vice Mayor Julie Ward Bujalski said she had wanted to send a message by approving the ordinance now. But she wanted to pencil in a start date of Jan. 1, 2015.

"I have a big discomfort going against the voters when they say this is what they want," she said. "I would recommend we move forward, but in doing so, give us time to compensate for the loss."

Mayor Dave Eggers said he was worried, though, about making a decision that commissioners would later have to reverse. And Commissioner Julie Scales said ratifying a tax years in advance of reviewing other items to come up during that budget year was questionable.

Eggers said waiting would also give residents time to share their opinions with city leaders.

City Attorney Tom Trask said they could have approved the provision then removed it from city code later: "By striking down or not moving forward with this ordinance, you don't put yourself in any worse position than adopting it" later.

Low income is defined as earning an annual adjusted gross household income of about $27,000 or less, said Dubov. That means if the senior lived, for example, with a child, the child's income would count toward the household's income. Seniors' eligibility is confirmed annually.

--Keyonna Summers, Times Staff Writer

[Last modified: Wednesday, January 16, 2013 11:09am]


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