Tax break ballot question worries local governments

TALLAHASSEE — City and county governments say if Amendment 4 passes next week, shuttered libraries, fired police officers and gutted social services will litter the public landscape.

It's a grim scenario local officials say will result from the $1.7 billion in tax relief the amendment offers primarily to businesses, first-time home buyers and second-home owners.

"We've tightened our belt as far as we could tighten," said Broward County Administrator Bertha Henry, spelling out $400 million in spending cuts the county has made to avoid raising taxes during the recession. "If Amendment 4 passes, we would have to raise taxes or we would have to cut services again."

But since local officials are barred from political advertising, getting their warnings across to voters has been difficult. Many have resorted to passing resolutions at sparsely attended commission meetings.

Meanwhile, Florida Realtors are funding a $4 million "Yes on 4" campaign of mailers and flashy Web ads.

Realtors say the amendment will help revive the state's weary housing market, create thousands of jobs and ensure that homeowners don't see higher property tax bills when their home values fall.

Funded by dues money from the state's 115,000 Realtors and additional support from the National Association of Realtors, the Yes on 4 campaign has a catchy seven-word slogan for the complex 700-word amendment: "Tired of getting your assets taxed off?"

"It's not a (tax) cut, it's a cap on future increases," said John Sebree, vice president of public policy for the Florida Realtors. He said local governments would benefit from more home sales and a larger number of people paying property taxes.

Advocacy groups for local governments are pitching a different message as they try to convince voters that most of Amendment 4's tax relief will go to businesses, new homeowners and snowbirds — not permanent residents.

In Pinellas County, nearly $631 million in assessed value would be removed from tax rolls, according to the appraiser's office, and the figure 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.

Even if Amendment 4 triggers more home sales, officials expect tax hikes or service cuts would be needed to offset the initial tax reductions. St. Petersburg increased property tax rates last 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.

Hillsborough County government economist Kevin Brickey has estimated that the county government could take a $6.8 million to $8.8 million hit if Amendment 4 passes.

Tim Wilmath, director of valuation for the Hillsborough County property appraiser, placed the potential loss to county government higher at about $9.3 million.

While it has not gotten as much attention, he says the additional $25,000 exemption for tangible personal property accounts for greater than two-thirds of the lost revenue, though the effect of the exemption for first-time home buyers is harder to estimate. He said the fact that home values are finally rising will likely make the recapture provision moot.

Wilmath said those rising residential values also could tamp down the losses, as home values in Hillsborough have climbed about 8 percent since January.

"That's a very positive sign in a market that has seen five straight years of decline," he said.

Cities such as Oldsmar, Polk City and Coconut Creek have passed resolutions urging residents to vote against Amendment 4.

"Amendment 4 creates inequities for non-homesteaded properties by allowing identical properties to be taxed differently," the resolution from Oldsmar reads.

While business groups have come out in favor of the amendment, the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce decided to remain neutral after a lengthy debate of the pros and cons.

Local governments were present at the debate, but chamber president Bob Rohrlack said they did not play an active role.

In Miami-Dade County, where property taxes are a particularly thorny political issue, Commissioner Dennis Moss stopped short of weighing in on Amendment 4 at a recent commission meeting.

"Vote," he said. "And vote wisely."

Times staff writers Mark Puente and Bill Varian contributed to this report.

Your guide to the amendments

A closer look at the 11 proposed changes to the Florida Constitution is at tampabay.com/amendments.

Tax break ballot question worries local governments 10/29/12 [Last modified: Monday, October 29, 2012 10:30pm]

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