Every day, many of Florida's homeowners are paying much more in property taxes than their neighbors because of the state's discriminatory tax policy.
The Legislature has ignored the growing inequity. It even made it worse when it placed on the 2008 ballot Amendment 1, which allows the most advantaged homeowners to take their tax break with them when they buy a different house. But a small band of new Florida homeowners is trying to bring some fairness to the system. The 1st District Court of Appeal, which has the power to reinstate their case, should give them a chance. Fundamental fairness is at stake.
A Leon County Circuit judge dismissed Bruner vs. Hartsfield last year and ruled the issues already had been settled by previous court rulings upholding Save Our Homes, the 1992 state constitutional amendment that laid the groundwork for today's inequitable tax system by capping annual increases in home values for tax purposes. The courts have generally ruled that the intent of Save Our Homes, to prevent Floridians from being taxed out of their homes, was of such public interest to preclude challenge on various grounds.
The plaintiffs contend those opinions dealt with a different set of facts, before a real estate boom created enormous inequities in the tax rolls. The plaintiffs argue that now that Amendment 1 has made those tax benefits portable, Save Our Homes has been corrupted. They say it now confers a tax shelter on a subset of citizens — long-time homeowners — not on a property.
Under Save Our Homes, increases in assessment values for homesteaded properties are capped at no more than 3 percent a year. The result is that like-situated neighbors — such as owners of identical condominiums in the same complex or homeowners of similar homes next door to each other — pay outrageously different tax bills based on what year they obtained a homestead. What's more, Amendment 1 now means the advantaged owner can move, take his or her tax benefit, and still pay less tax than a first-time Florida home buyer of a similar property.
How much homesteaded homeowners save depends on when they bought their property. But on average, Save Our Homes means longtime homeowners pay taxes on $27,000 less in assessed value than new buyers. In the state's coastal regions, such as Tampa Bay, the average disparity is closer to $95,000.
That equates to real money. In St. Petersburg, that $95,000 difference would mean a longtime homeowner pays $2,069 less each year in property taxes than a new neighbor. In Tampa, it's about $2,055. That is fundamentally unfair.
Sandy D'Alemberte, the former president of Florida State University and the American Bar Association, argued for reinstatement of the case last week before the 1st Court of Appeal in Tallahassee. He faced a skeptical panel. Two of the three judges sitting on the bench had authored previous rulings upholding Save Our Homes. But if he succeeded in convincing the judges to order the case be heard, there is still hope that the basic tenet of tax fairness will return to Florida. The courts, if they side with the plaintiffs, could ultimately toss out the state's property tax system and order the Legislature to start over and create a new one. That would be the fairest approach for all Florida property owners.