To hear some people tell it, doomsday is upon us.
Library hours will be slashed. Money that once flowed for the homeless, poor children, battered women and others who benefit from the services of local nonprofits will dry up. And residents might as well stop using the words "Santa" and "parade" in the same sentence, because that's out of the question, too.
This latest fit of government hand-wringing comes after voters approved a major property tax overhaul last week. The state constitutional amendment limits governments' ability to tax property.
Already, city officials are bemoaning the loss of potential tax dollars.
Clearwater claims it will be short $2.7-million.
St. Petersburg says it'll be out $9-million.
The county, $33-million.
"We are going to have to cut our budget. There is no question about it," said Michael Connors, internal services administrator for St. Petersburg. "Nothing is off the table."
But what isn't clear is why does a little less money all of sudden translate to tough times when many local governments have spent recent years flush in property tax income?
Clearwater saw a $13-million increase in property tax revenue over the past half-decade. That translates to essentially a 35 percent raise.
St. Petersburg received an extra $26-million in the same five-year period, or a 36 percent increase.
Seminole earned an extra $1-million to add to a $17.8-million budget.
The surplus of dollars has earned governments little sympathy from taxpayers, who contend that elected officials need to learn to do more with less in these tough financial times.
Even Gov. Charlie Crist has told governments to stop their complaining and make the tax overhaul work.
"They don't miss a beat," said Scott Samuels, a St. Petersburg broker who has frequented City Hall to complain about his property taxes. "They are already talking about closing down the library ... It's out of control."
Government officials say that claims that they have enjoyed a significant cash flow in recent years are exaggerated.
"People say we have doubled our tax dollars," said St. Petersburg City Council chairman Jamie Bennett. "That's not true. Everyone says you guys have all this money, but people have to take out their tax bills and really take a look at them. They need to look at what the numbers really were."
Taxpayers also aren't aware of how expensive it is to keep a city going, government leaders say.
St. Petersburg has seen a $78.3-million increase in the cost of salaries and benefits since 2002, even though there are now 149 fewer employees on the payroll today. Those costs will most likely continue to soar.
"We need to be competitive salary-wise and benefit-wise," Connors said. "There is not a lot we can do about that."
But homeowner Hamilton Hanson said he is more than willing to share his cost-saving ideas if St. Petersburg needs help scaling back on services:
- Lower the thermostat at City Hall.
- Downgrade to a cheaper health care package similar to those offered by private companies.
- Get rid of some of the city administrators, including the three deputy mayors.
It sounds harsh, but so is forking over your hard-earned cash to the government, Hanson said.
"Property taxes account for 30 percent of my total income," he said. "I think that would be much better spent on me and my granddaughter."
Cristina Silva can be reached at (727) 893-8846 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
BY THE NUMBERS
Estimated revenue earned from property taxes in 2008
Property tax increase in St. Petersburg within five years
|Operating budget||Millage rate||Revenue earned from property taxes|