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County may revisit property tax break

Looking to shore up support for the proposed Penny for Pasco sales tax increase among cash-strapped seniors, County Commission Chairman Peter Altman is floating a proposal for another property tax break _ this one for low-income retirees.

Altman plans to ask his fellow commissioners today to revisit a proposal to offer a second $25,000 homestead exemption to low-income seniors. Under the proposal, people 65 and older with a household income under $22,096 would not have to pay taxes on $50,000 of their property's value.

The owners of the average $55,300 home in Holiday, for example, would see their property tax bill drop from $517 to $90 in county and school taxes. Assuming they spent half of their income on sales-taxable items (food and medications are exempt), the proposed 1-cent-on-the-dollar sales tax increase would cost them $110 a year.

"I understand over two-thirds of the counties in Florida have enacted (the second homestead exemption), and I think it would be a good thing to do," Altman told the Pasco Times on Monday. "It could also remove one of the arguments against the penny sales tax, that it's really going to hurt the low-income seniors that can't afford their medications and other costs.

"The thing I'm looking for is a willingness to look at this again," he added.

Commissioners rejected the idea of a second homestead exemption three years ago, when they thought it could cost up to $8-million a year in lost revenue. But the extra exemption has cost several other counties considerably less than they had anticipated, Altman said.

In response to an informal survey Pasco County sent out last year, officials in Polk County said the extra exemption cost the county about $500,000 in lost revenue. Broward County had estimated a loss of about $9.9-million, but actually lost about a third of that, said Mike Nurrenbrock, Pasco's budget director.

Pasco County does not have a solid estimate of how much the extra exemption would cost, he said.

"We could probably go out there and get figures and say we have this many who are 65 and over, but to try to figure out how many would (financially) qualify, it's difficult to know how many would do it or how many would fill out the forms," Nurrenbrock said.

If approved by voters March 9, the Penny for Pasco plan would raise about $437-million over its 10-year life to build new schools, repair roads, buy land for conservation and pay for other projects. The proposal already includes a half-mill property tax rate cut from the School Board, which would siphon away about a quarter of the sales tax proceeds.

Some of the sales tax money would pay for sheriff's patrol cars, Altman said, freeing up money in the county's general fund that could help pay for a second homestead exemption for low-income seniors.

Altman mentioned the idea Saturday during a Penny for Pasco debate hosted by the Democratic Women's Club of Pasco County. Chuck Kalogianis, president of the West Pasco Democratic Club, praised the idea.

"People say, "Hey, what's in it for me?' " Kalogianis said, referring to the Penny for Pasco proposal. "They understand schools and roads, but they want to see some sort of tangible benefit to them."

But sales tax critics dismissed the idea as a gimmick. With the Penny for Pasco ballot language already set, the county cannot offer a legally binding guarantee that commissioners would add the second homestead exemption if voters approve the Penny for Pasco plan.

"Seniors will be too smart to fall into that trap," said Ann Bunting, head of Citizens Against the Penny for Pasco. "They know once there's a tax, it always goes up. It never goes away. They're not going to fall for that (promise of a second homestead exemption). They'll see right through that gimmick."

_ Bridget Hall Grumet covers Pasco County government. She can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6244, or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 6244. Her e-mail address is hallsptimes.com.

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