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Tampa Bay’s taxing issue: Seeking new money amid robust government spending

Hillsborough, Pasco voters consider tax referendum issues while soaring property values churn record revenue.
Jerry Mills, 50, left, and Charity Barr, 42, right, share a kiss while waiting for a bus at the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority Transit Center in downtown Tampa on Tuesday, July 26, 2022.  A  proposed 1% sales tax referendum for transportation will be on the Hillsborough County ballot in November. If voters approve the tax, 45 percent of the proceeds will be earmarked for mass transit.
Jerry Mills, 50, left, and Charity Barr, 42, right, share a kiss while waiting for a bus at the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority Transit Center in downtown Tampa on Tuesday, July 26, 2022. A proposed 1% sales tax referendum for transportation will be on the Hillsborough County ballot in November. If voters approve the tax, 45 percent of the proceeds will be earmarked for mass transit. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Jul. 29

Pasco County voters headed to the polls 18 years ago to consider a new sales tax to build classrooms, fix roads, add bike trails and buy public safety equipment and land to preserve.

That original Penny for Pasco carried another caveat: a tax cut for property owners.

If voters approved the sales tax, the Pasco school district said it would cut a property tax it collects to pay for new construction. It was a strategy borrowed from Orange County where voters two years earlier had agreed to a sales tax for schools that came with a property tax cut.

In both cases, the new tax passed.

The Pasco School District used proceeds from the Penny for Pasco sales tax, first approved in 2004, to build the Veterans Elementary School in Wesley Chapel, pictured on Tuesday, July 26, 2022.
The Pasco School District used proceeds from the Penny for Pasco sales tax, first approved in 2004, to build the Veterans Elementary School in Wesley Chapel, pictured on Tuesday, July 26, 2022. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

Voters in Pasco and Hillsborough counties this year will again consider ballot measures on new spending financed by new taxes. But neither is dangling accompanying property tax cuts, even with local governments swimming in revenue from record property values.

The elected county commissions in both Pasco and Hillsborough are considering budget proposals with status quo property tax rates generating tens of millions of dollars in increased real estate tax revenue. Neither is discussing providing some relief by rolling back tax rates for their constituents, who are paying higher prices for just about everything.

It hasn’t gone unnoticed. Some critics complained about new tax plans coming while government spending is on the rise.

“Our infrastructure is crumbling and their solution to the problem is to take MORE of the working class’s money,” tweeted Joshua Wostal, a Republican running for Hillsborough County Commission.

The scrutiny didn’t come exclusively from typical social media commentators.

Pasco County shared proceeds from the Penny for Pasco sales tax, first approved in 2004, with the state Department of Transportation to rebuild the interchange of Interstate 75 and County Road 54  in Wesley Chapel, pictured on Tuesday, July 26, 2022.
Pasco County shared proceeds from the Penny for Pasco sales tax, first approved in 2004, with the state Department of Transportation to rebuild the interchange of Interstate 75 and County Road 54 in Wesley Chapel, pictured on Tuesday, July 26, 2022. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

“I would be fibbing to you if I didn’t say I’m a little bit disappointed that they (Pasco commissioners) didn’t roll back the taxes just a tad. I think that would be a show of good faith,” said Ray Gadd, deputy school superintendent and the architect of the original Penny for Pasco campaign.

Pasco and Hillsborough voters each will consider two referenda this election season. Both will consider new property taxes on Aug 23 to pay for higher salaries for teachers, employees and other needs. It’s for one mil in Hillsborough and up to one mil in Pasco.

In November, a 15-year renewal of the Penny for Pasco sales tax will be on the ballot in Pasco and Hillsborough voters will consider a 1% sales tax for transportation.

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School districts, however, don’t have the opportunity to trim their property tax rates for the portion that pays for operating costs such as teacher salaries. Those are set by the state under a complicated formula intended to balance public school funding across Florida. The property tax windfall enjoyed by county governments isn’t duplicated for individual school districts.

“Absolutely,” said Terry Connor, deputy superintendent of Hillsborough schools. “There is a perception the rise in property values will lead to more funding for more school districts.”

Last week, the state set the local property tax rates for school districts’ operating budgets. Pasco’s will drop 7% from 4.310 mils to 4.016. Hillsborough fared similarly. Its rate will decline more than 8% from 4.328 mils to 3.978.

“There’s your rollback,” Gadd said. “The state basically has made sure that we did not reap the benefits of that 16 percent growth” in property values.

Pasco County used proceeds from the Penny for Pasco sales tax, first approved in 2004 and extended in 2012, to rebuild Pasco County Fire Rescue station 13 in Wesley Chapel, pictured on Tuesday, July 26, 2022.
Pasco County used proceeds from the Penny for Pasco sales tax, first approved in 2004 and extended in 2012, to rebuild Pasco County Fire Rescue station 13 in Wesley Chapel, pictured on Tuesday, July 26, 2022. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

Cutting the portion of property taxes that pay for construction and renovations, as Pasco did in 2004, also is no longer an option. The Legislature permanently reduced how much school districts could assess in 2008. Going even lower isn’t realistic, Gadd said, because the money already is pledged to pay off construction debt.

Which means any property tax rate cut this year would have to come from county and municipal governments. Few seem interested, choosing instead to invest in public safety, employee wages, affordable housing and a litany of other needs.

“You don’t quit your job when you win a scratch off,” said Christina Barker of All For Transportation, the citizens group advocating for the transportation tax in Hillsborough.

Promoting a property tax cut this year simply would be political expediency, she said, in a county facing a $13 billion deficit in its transportation needs over the next two decades.

Motorists drive through a flooded street in Wesley Chapel pictured on Tuesday, July 26, 2022.
Motorists drive through a flooded street in Wesley Chapel pictured on Tuesday, July 26, 2022. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

Pasco Commissioner Mike Moore said he didn’t recall a single person speaking to the commission during its meetings or writing an email asking for a property tax reduction. Instead, people advocated for more spending on fire stations, ambulances and sheriff’s deputies.

“I sort of think Pasco’s been behind the curve for so fricking long that it gives them a chance to catch up a little bit,” said Michael Cox, a former county commissioner who is heading the citizens committee promoting the Penny for Pasco.

“I wouldn’t blame them for anything. They’re probably being responsible there,” Cox, a Democrat, said about the all-Republican commission. “How that affects the penny? I hope it would not affect it at all.”

Recent history shows voters in both counties open to paying more taxes. Hillsborough voters approved sales taxes for both schools and transportation in 2018. The Florida Supreme Court voided the transportation tax, however, because spending decisions did not rest with elected commissioners. The county is seeking a redo this year.

Voters in Pasco reauthorized the penny sales tax by a 70-30% percent margin in 2012, and then agreed in 2018 to four new property taxes to finance repairs to parks and libraries and to build new fire stations and a jail.

A passenger walks toward a bus at the HART Transit Center in downtown Tampa on Tuesday, July 26, 2022.
A passenger walks toward a bus at the HART Transit Center in downtown Tampa on Tuesday, July 26, 2022. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

The organized partisan opposition of the past has evaporated. Instead of the Pasco Republican Executive Committee campaigning against the tax referendum — as it did in 2004 — one of its elected leaders, Republican State Committeeman Shawn Foster, sits on the citizens committee working to renew the sales tax.

Foster acknowledged he voted against the Penny for Pasco referendum in 2004, but changed his mind after seeing the transparency of a citizens group watching the civic investments and local leaders fulfilling the list of promised projects.

“I was like ‘Guys, I voted against it 10 years ago. I’m voting for it now,’ " said Foster, “and I’ll say it again this time.”

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