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High court hears debate on property amendment

The popular homestead exemption _ a fixture of tax relief in Florida since the 1930s _ was at the heart of a debate Tuesday in the state's highest court.

The Florida Supreme Court was asked to figure out if the wording of a constitutional amendment scheduled to be on the ballot Nov. 3 would effectively wipe out the $25,000 exemption that greatly cuts most homeowners' property tax bills. A ruling is expected quickly, perhaps as early as the end of the week.

The Florida League of Cities and the Florida Association of Counties argued that Amendment 10 would trigger the repeal of the $25,000 exemption, so it should be taken off the ballot.

The group that got Amendment 10 on the ballot, Save Our Homes, strongly disagreed.

The hundreds of thousands of people who signed petitions to get Amendment 10 on the ballot "did not intend to repeal the homestead exemption," said Joe Little, a University of Florida law professor who represented Tax Cap Foundation Inc. at the arguments. Tax Cap joined Save Our Homes in fighting the city and county organizations.

Amendment 10 would prohibit property appraisers from raising the assessed value of homestead property by more than 3 percent a year. Lee County Property Appraiser Ken Wilkinson started the movement five years ago and gathered nearly 400,000 signatures to get the amendment on the ballot.

A small group of Amendment 10 supporters came to the Supreme Court on Tuesday, creating a colorful crowd with their bright green buttons, stickers and "Concerned Taxpayers" caps. Outside, a small group gathered, waving signs to passing motorists.

"We spent years to get this on the ballot, and three weeks before the election, they're going to try to stop us?" said Paul McDermott of New Smyrna Beach.

The city and county organizations went to the Supreme Court on Sept. 18 to challenge Amendment 10 on the grounds that its wording would trigger a repeal the homestead exemption because of other language in the Constitution.

If the language would trigger a repeal of the exemption, Amendment 10 could be doomed.

Floridians have enjoyed a homestead exemption since it was adopted in 1934 and applied to the first $5,000 of assessed value. In 1980, the Florida Constitution was amended to increase the exemption to $25,000.

Amendment 10 would "ignore nearly 60 years of constitutional and legislative history as it relates to the homestead exemption," argued attorney Benjamin Phipps, representing the League of Cities and the Association of Counties.

It's no secret that the organizations oppose the amendment for other reasons, as well.

The amendment would shift the tax burden from owners of expensive oceanfront properties to less affluent homeowners, said Michael Sittig, assistant executive director of the League of Cities.

"They have a cute little slogan _ I think they should call it Save Our Waterfront Homes," Sittig said after the arguments before the court.

Wilkinson disagreed that amendment would benefit property-rich taxpayers. "Percentages don't discriminate," he said.

He has also said that the homestead exemption issue is a just scare tactic aimed at defeating Amendment 10.

During the oral arguments, Supreme Court Justice Gerald Kogan questioned the intent of the city and county organizations. If the court decides that the wording of the amendment in no way triggers a repeal of the homestead exemption, Kogan said, then "they win and you win. Then you have no problem unless you've got some other motive."

There have been concerns that capping the assessments could reduce budgets for cities, counties and schools.

Because the election is so soon, both sides are expecting a swift decision by the Supreme Court.

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