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Property tax cut may wait despite public anger

TALLAHASSEE — Providing property tax cuts to an outraged public is much like the job of Sisyphus of Greek mythology, who was condemned to roll a boulder up a hill only to have it tumble back down again and again.

The latest sign of the futility: Wednesday's ruling by the Florida Supreme Court to strip Amendment 5 from the November ballot for misleading language. The measure would have eliminated most school property taxes for a higher sales tax.

So what now? Not much. The election cycle means it is unlikely voters will see another bold option before 2010 even though the demand for relief has not waned in the face of falling property values. But among the potential ideas being pushed by lawmakers or citizen activists:

• Cap local and state governments revenue and spending.

• Cap all property taxes at 1.35 percent of taxable value, in effect limiting local millage rates to $13.50 per $1,000 in assessed value.

• Limit assessment increases on commercial property to 5 percent annually, down from 10 percent.

• Change the provision in Save Our Homes that requires property appraisers to increase assessments by 3 percent even when home values decline.

People who expected their taxes would "drop like a rock" — to borrow Gov. Charlie Crist's catchphrase — under the Amendment 1 plan passed in January feel slighted.

"We've been bamboozled," said Craig Campbell, 61, of St. Petersburg, who said he saved $10 under Amendment 1. He'll pay roughly $590 in taxes for a home he bought in the 1970s.

"I voted for Charlie Crist, and I thought he was going to do things," Campbell added. "He has accomplished nothing." Scores of people have written letters to newspapers across the state expressing similar dissatisfaction.

The governor, who threw his support to Amendment 5 only last month, did not want to deal with the fallout of the court's decision this week, saying he was focused on the storms in the Atlantic.

"Not having the people have the opportunity to lower their property taxes is certainly disappointing to me," he said. "So we'll take a look at it after these storms are done."

Two powerful state lawmakers say they want to pursue a cap on all government revenue. After the 2007 Legislature forced cities and counties to roll back property tax rates, many have charged higher fees for some services to compensate.

Such caps are known as TABOR, or taxpayer's bill of rights, and are as radioactive a tax policy change as they come. Colorado passed TABOR but eased off a few years ago because it was bankrupting state coffers. This spring the Florida Taxation and Budget Reform Commission, the same panel that tried to put Amendment 5 on the November ballot, considered a more lenient version, but finally gave up.

"It's not a simple solution," acknowledged Sen. Mike Haridopolos, R-Indialantic and the a possible Senate president in 2010. But he said it could be crafted to provide flexibility.

Haridopolos has a willing partner in Rep. Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, the presumed House speaker in 2010. Cannon said the past controversy can be allayed by bringing local government to the table to fashion the plan.

"We recognize they have a need to provide services," he said, "but we also want to not spend money on things that aren't essential."

Cannon said he and many of his colleagues are also interested in a lower assessment cap for nonhomesteaded properties, which is currently 10 percent.

But as lawmakers head toward November elections, one of the loudest cries is coming from the people who have gotten the most help — longtime homesteaded owners. They are incredulous that their tax bills are going up despite declining property values.

The reason is Save Our Homes, the 3 percent annual assessment cap that shielded them from higher taxes during the runup earlier this decade. But a provision of the law requires property appraisers to increase taxable values up to 3 percent even in down times if a home's assessed value is less than the home's market value.

"People are like, 'Whoa,' " said Rep. Ed Hooper, R-Clearwater, who has gotten more than 20 calls or e-mails about the so-called recapture rule.

Lawmakers attempted to address the issue last session but got nowhere. It's likely to be revisited this spring. But like that mythical boulder on the hill, there's no guarantee anything will change.

Property tax cut may wait despite public anger 09/05/08 [Last modified: Thursday, September 11, 2008 3:45pm]
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