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Commission asks port to levy its own taxes

In theory, county property owners could see one part of their tax bill go down next year _ which would be surprising news in this tight budget year. But taxpayers could watch another section of their bill go up by the same amount. In effect, a wash for the bottom line.

The County Commission on Wednesday voted to ask the Tampa Port Authority to levy its own tax, rather than getting the equivalent of a quarter mill from the county's taxes. The port does not have to accept the proposal.

The tax-rate football was kicked to the Port Authority so the County Commission could gain more flexibility within its tax rate. Auditors have expressed concern that the county's tax rate is nearing its state-mandated cap.

County Administrator Fred Karl said he is concerned the county lacks flexibility to raise taxes in the event of an emergency, because the county is approaching the cap.

Although, initially, it might seem to taxpayers that their bills would stay the same, the commission's 4-3 vote could lead to higher taxes. That's because the commission could keep collecting the portion of the tax rate that it's now giving to the Port Authority while the port levies its own tax.

Karl said he hopes that won't happen. If the port levies a tax, Karl said he will propose that the commission lower its tax rate by an equal amount.

Voting against the proposal were commissioners Ed Turanchik, Pam Iorio and Joe Chillura.

Hillsborough considers the Port Authority an independent taxing authority, and officials said they have no authority over the port's budget. A 1989 court review agreed that the authority is an independent agency.

The county has an agreement to provide the equivalent of slightly less than one-quarter mill annually. That 10-year agreement was signed in 1989.

A mill is equal to $1 in tax for every $1,000 in assessed, non-exempt property value.

Last year, the county gave more than $4.5-million to the port authority, records show.

Karl said that he has received information from the Port Authority that it supports the proposal.