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Amendment 4 would remove $631 million from Pinellas County tax rolls

ST. PETERSBURG — Since the Great Recession decimated the Sunshine State in 2008, county and city governments have slashed spending by $3 billion.

Cities have shuttered pools. Hours at parks and libraries have been reduced. Thousands of workers have landed in the unemployment line.

As Election Day nears, some city and county leaders warn more big cuts are on the horizon if voters pass Amendment 4, which will lower property tax revenues collected by counties and cities.

"It's not a very good picture," St. Petersburg council member Charlie Gerdes said recently. "The state Legislature is making decisions in Tallahassee — where they can beat their chests and claim they're cutting your taxes — and what happens is your local governments are left to deal with it."

To assist budget planning, Pinellas Appraiser Pam Dubov estimated how much assessed and taxable value would disappear from tax rolls next year if Amendment 4 passes.

In Pinellas County, nearly $631 million in assessed value would be removed from tax rolls. The number would grow each year.

The cities with the largest tax rolls stand to lose the most. St. Petersburg could lose $1,043,676 in actual dollars; Clearwater, $415,000; and Largo, $133,000.

Amendment 4, which will need the support of 60 percent of voters to pass, includes three provisions:

• The first would reduce the cap on increases in non-homesteaded property values from 10 percent to 5 percent and extend the expiration of that cap to 2023. Assessed value loss: $123 million.

• The second is for first-time home buyers, defined as those who have not owned a home in Florida in the past three years. They would receive an additional homestead exemption on half of their home's appraised value up to $150,000. It would be phased out over five years. Assessed value loss: $338 million.

• The final provision would allow the Legislature to repeal Florida's "recapture" rule, which causes some taxable values on homesteaded property to rise even as market values drop. Assessed value loss: $169 million.

Florida Realtors, who are behind Amendment 4, say it will create jobs at small businesses and boost home ownership.

City and county officials are trying to invoke fear in residents, said Ben Fairbrother, who is running the pro-amendment campaign for Taxpayers First, a creation of the Realtors' group.

Property tax revenues will decline in the first few years, he said, but homeowners will in turn spend more money and push tax revenues back to local governments.

Local officials worry about cutting already trimmed budgets.

St. Petersburg increased property tax rates this month to plug a $10 million deficit caused by shrinking revenues. It was the city's first tax hike in 22 years. Pinellas County also raised property taxes.

"Cities and counties can't afford when the Legislature dabbles in tax reform," said Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch. "It's just passing the buck to local governments."

If the county is forced to make more cuts, it could mean service reductions or more fees, such as the unpopular $5 fee now required to go to Fort De Soto Park, he said.

In St. Petersburg, a $1 million loss equals about 10 police officers.

In Largo, the city's $133,000 drop equates to one police officer and the equipment he or she would need for the job.

In Clearwater, the City Council approved a resolution Thursday urging residents to "carefully consider the potential adverse consequences of Amendment 4."

"It increases the complexity and shifts the burden to home­owners — those are the biggest concerns I have," said City Council member Bill Jonson.

"It gives additional benefits to businesses and new homeowners," he said. "If the budgets are kept constant, it will mean that regular homeowners will pay more of the burden."

Clearwater officials can't say what they'd cut if voters approve the measure.

Fairbrother, of Taxpayers First, objects to the notion that Amendment 4 will translate into higher taxes.

"This doesn't force local governments to raise millage rates," Fairbrother said. "That's not an accurate analysis. We need to look at long-term solutions."

He points to an analysis done in June by Florida TaxWatch, a group that monitors state spending and tax policy.

The group estimates that Amendment 4 would create 20,524 jobs and trigger between 319,861 and 383,810 additional home sales over a 10-year period.

The amendment would have little impact on the portion of property taxes that pays for public schools, which is roughly 40 percent of the total bill.

Amendment 4 also is an attempt to reduce inequities in the property tax system, particularly those that resulted from the Save Our Homes amendment in the 1990s.

Because assessment increases on homesteaded properties are capped at 3 percent a year, recent home buyers pay increasingly larger tax bills than longtime owners, even on homes with the same market value.

Amendment 4 tries to balance that out by offering benefits to new homeowners.

Dubov, the county tax appraiser, said she wishes the Legislature had made each provision a separate amendment.

The first-time buyer provision has the greatest impact, she said, but benefits the fewest homeowners. People buying houses for $100,000 or less would virtually pay no taxes, she said.

With more than 200,000 residential parcels valued at less than $100,000 in the county, several thousand buyers would pay only school taxes in the first year of the proposed law.

David McKalip, a local surgeon and activist, called Amendment 4 an imperfect solution to fix tax inequities. Still, he hopes voters pass the measure to stop local governments from siphoning cash from homeowners.

"St. Petersburg needs less money from the community," McKalip said. "I support anything that lowers taxes."

Times reporter Mike Brassfield contributed to this report. Mark Puente can be reached at mpuente@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8459. Follow him at Twitter at twitter.com/markpuente.

Amendment 4 would remove $631 million from Pinellas County tax rolls 10/07/12 [Last modified: Sunday, October 7, 2012 12:28am]
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