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Column: Cutting taxes comes at a price

I don't think we pay enough taxes.

Our teachers are underpaid. Our roads are too crowded and our once-respectable university system is slipping into chaos.

And I knew better than to breathe a word of this to my fellow passengers — two bus loads of Hernando County residents bound for a statewide tax protest in Tallahassee on Tuesday.

I saw signs saying "Property Tax is Property Theft'' and "Ken 'Tax Man' Pruitt,'' referring to the Republican state Senate president who has had the nerve to say he doesn't favor additional tax cuts this year.

Remembering the hostility of the Government Gone Wild seminars last summer, I expected the same on the bus: fire-breathing rhetoric, red-faced fury and, maybe, personal attacks.

But the closest I got was a good-natured jab from Jon "Jaz'' Zydenbos, a Republican candidate for County Commission, who called me "a representative from the enemy newspaper.''

And what I heard mostly were reasonable-sounding complaints.

"These are not people hoarding their money,'' said Linda Hayward, of the Hernando County Taxpayers Alliance, who helped organize the trip.

"These are people seeing their savings go away and, for some of them, their homes.''

Susanne Clifton, 58, of Weeki Wachee, for example, is a media specialist at Dolores S. Parrott Middle School who bought four investment houses in recent years.

She now pays more than $12,000 per year in property taxes on a school salary of $43,000. On some of these houses, the rent she collects barely covers insurance and tax bills, which are also scaring away prospective buyers.

"I'm middle of the road. I think we do need government. We do need services,'' she said. "At the same time, property owners are paying a disproportionate share of taxes.''

Reasonable? Yes. But is it right to press for further tax cuts? No. Not in my opinion.

Remember, voters already approved an amendment to double the homestead exemption, to which the County Commission added another $50,000 exemption for some low-income seniors.

Another proposed amendment will allow voters to decide whether to cut more than $8-billion per year in state-mandated property taxes for schools. In a special session last year, the state Legislature required counties to cut about 1.3 mills from property taxes.

These are factors government can control. More and more, they will face ones they cannot.

That includes declining sales tax revenues that have lawmakers talking about cutting money for schools and early release for nonviolent prisoners.

More to the point, property taxes are the main target of anti-tax crusaders. The sagging real estate market means that property values and appraisals will drop this coming year, and probably for several more years.

Home prices that were inflated by rampant speculation are the root cause of the problem. Lower prices ought to be the main solution.

"We know it will go down,'' Budget Director George Zoettlein said of the county's property tax revenues. "We just don't know by how much.''

This might mean going beyond trimming fat to cutting essential services, such as road maintenance, he said.

Before we cut any more, we ought to ask what, in the future, we're willing to live without.

Column: Cutting taxes comes at a price 03/25/08 [Last modified: Monday, March 31, 2008 2:02pm]
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