NEW PORT RICHEY — The very idea of a 23 percent tax increase would send most politicians running. But not the New Port Richey City Council.
Looking out over a chamber full of residents worried about painful cuts to city services, council members offered this assurance: It might look like taxes are going up, but they're really not.
The council members believed what they were saying. But they were wrong.
In discussions of raising the property tax rate 23 percent (to $8.18 for each $1,000 of value from $6.63), council members have emphasized that the amount most people would pay would actually decline because property values have fallen. But that's not the case for a majority of homeowners, including four of the five council members themselves.
"To try to convince the public that 'we're raising the (property tax) rate but you're taxes are not going to go up' is not entirely truthful," Pasco County Property Appraiser Mike Wells said on Wednesday when asked to comment on the council's point of view.
Even though most market values have declined, many assessed values haven't, Wells said. A property's assessed value can never be higher than its market value. But for those properties in which the market value is down but still above the assessed value, assessed values would rise, and so would their tax bills.
According to estimates from the county property appraiser, such is the case for about 20 percent of total New Port Richey properties and about 62 percent of homes in the city — including those of four-fifths of the city council.
Yet Mayor Scott McPherson and the other council members have been repeating the line that a higher tax rate doesn't automatically mean more tax dollars.
"It's so easy to see a headline and think, 'What is City Hall doing out there — they're going to raise my taxes 24 percent?' " McPherson said at Monday's council meeting. "No. Many of you will pay less, even at a higher (property tax) rate."
McPherson and council members Rob Marlowe and Ginny Miller sounded this refrain a total of six times at Monday's meeting.
"If the reporters will report that the actual dollars spent on property taxes for a typical homeowner — most people will see less dollars paid in property taxes even at the highest (property tax) rate we're considering," Miller said.
But if the property tax rate rises, Miller herself will pay more. So will a majority of New Port Richey homeowners and all the other council members except Judy DeBella Thomas, who bought her home in 2007.
Take the mayor, for example. McPherson's house on Lafayette Street, which he bought in 1998, has a market value of $277,335, down from $368,353 in 2008. During that period his taxable value inched up from $165,144 to $165,359. He paid $1,094.48 in city property taxes last year; at the council's proposed property tax rate, he would pay $1,352.64.
The source of the council's confusion may be that the city only receives the aggregate assessment for all the property in the city. Rick Snyder, New Port Richey's finance director, said city officials only see the tax base as a whole, but they don't know how it breaks down for individual homeowners.
McPherson said Wednesday that, based on the information Snyder provided, he thought his statement was true when he made it on Monday.
"If you guys want to do an article about me that I'm trying to mislead the residents, you can slant it that way," he said. "But I've been trying since day one to be as candid as possible."
Marlowe and Miller also stuck to their statements.
State Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, said the claim that tax bills go down with market values is "totally incorrect," and in fact many tax bills went up last year, too.
"Somebody might be giving you bad information," said Fasano, who sponsored legislation to stop tax appraisals from rising on properties whose value fell, but the bill was defeated.
New Port Richey's proposed property tax increase is designed to keep city revenue in line with last year's. The city's $17 million general fund budget also would face a 5 percent reduction and the loss of six positions.
The rate increase at the level to break even would require a unanimous vote of the council. If the council doesn't raise it at all, the city would have to cut $500,000 or so more from the budget.
Isaac Arnsdorf can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6232.