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Overcharged? Some Hillsborough businesses slow to lower sales tax rate

The Florida Supreme Court ruling became final March 15, but some businesses are still charging 8.5 percent tax on purchases.
A receipt from Whole Foods Market shows the store charged a sales tax rate of 8.5 percent on Saturday, March 20. The Florida Supreme Court order voiding the penny-on-the-dollar sales tax for transportation became effective March 15.
A receipt from Whole Foods Market shows the store charged a sales tax rate of 8.5 percent on Saturday, March 20. The Florida Supreme Court order voiding the penny-on-the-dollar sales tax for transportation became effective March 15. [ Tampa Bay Times ]
Published Mar. 23
Updated Mar. 23

LUTZ — At a McDonald’s restaurant in Lutz Friday, customers paid an 8.5 percent sales tax for a crispy chicken sandwich or a cup of coffee. At the Walgreens pharmacy across the road, the tax dropped to 7.5 percent on shampoo, candy and the other sundries on the shelves.

This fluctuation isn’t unique to the retailers near Sunset Lane and U.S. 41.

The Whole Foods Market in Carrollwood charged the higher rate on purchases made Saturday. Dunkin Donuts on N Dale Mabry Highway and a Plant City convenience store did likewise on Monday morning transactions. But customers at Publix, Bealls Florida, Walmart and Wawa paid the lower rate.

What gives?

It is the fallout of a Florida Supreme Court order that voided the penny-on-the-dollar Hillsborough County sales tax for transportation that had been collected since Jan. 1, 2019. The court issued the order Feb. 25 and it became final Monday, March 15. The next morning the Florida Department of Revenue issued a notice to the approximately 35,000 businesses in Hillsborough to stop collecting the 8.5 percent sales tax and to return to the previous amount of 7.5 percent.

Related: Stop collecting extra sales tax, businesses told

But a week later some businesses still hadn’t changed and some of their customers weren’t happy with the dawdling.

“... The action of the Florida Department of Revenue is not sufficient to get the attention of businesses quickly enough,” countered Glenn Patton of New Tampa.

The Department of Revenue said it sent notice of the sales tax change both electronically and by regular U.S. Mail to all businesses in the county registered to collect and remit the tax.

“Businesses are responsible for correctly administering sales tax,” Bethany Wester, the department’s communications director said in an email to the Tampa Bay Times.. “If a business mistakenly collects the former transportation surtax, the business should refund the tax to the customer.”

Patton purchased a refrigerator, parts and installation from Home Depot on March 17 and was charged the 8.5 percent sales tax, adding nearly $121 to his $1,428 purchase. The 7.5 percent rate would have reduced his charge by $14. The store offered a refund five days later.

Patton relayed his concerns to Hillsborough County commissioners. So did Joseph Hastings of Apollo Beach.

“When are merchants going to be told to cease collecting this illegal tax?,” Hastings wrote on the same day the Department of Revenue published its notice. “To continue collection is just exacerbating issues that are arising with the refund process.”

Patton, however, offered a different sentiment. He suggested the county keep the money for transportation needs instead of trying to execute a complicated and to-be-determined refund of the nearly $503 million collected before the Florida Supreme Court order.

Related: HIilsborough commissioners: We'll give back sales tax money

Commissioner Stacy White, the plaintiff in the lawsuit that overturned the sales tax, said Monday his office had received five emails and an unspecified number of phone calls about the tax rate since the court order became final March 15.

White said he instructed his staff to provide the Department of Revenue tax notice information and to refer specific cases to the county’s consumer affairs department, “not with a mindset toward punitive measures, but rather as an effort to educate businesses on the rate change.”

Separately, the county’s consumer protection office reported Monday it had forwarded three cases, involving two restaurants and a Dollar Tree store, to the state Department of Revenue after customers complained the businesses were charging excessive sales tax.

Patton took matters into his own hands and said he called or emailed Home Depot, Lowe’s Home Improvement, Publix, Aldi, Amazon and Hillsborough Tax Collector Nancy Millan to ask if the businesses had reduced the sales tax rate as instructed by the state. He said a Publix manager told him the chain made the change March 16, but he said managers at some of the other retailers were unfamiliar with the issue.

“It’s not my job,” said Patton, 75. “The state Department of Revenue is not going to pay me to go around and educate the people who remit the tax. It’s frustrating because this has been in the news considerably.”

Related: Commissioner seeks to restart transportation tax referendum

The Tampa Bay Chamber said none of its members had contacted the group with questions on the issue “but we will reach out to our members about the sales tax restoring to the 7.5 percent rate,” said Jacquelyn Vasvari-Toke, the chamber’s senior director for strategic communications and marketing.

The Pasco County-based North Tampa Bay Chamber has 253 members in Hillsborough County, but relayed the state’s sales tax notice to all of its members because so many shop or do business across county lines, said President/CEO Hope Kennedy.

“It’s very important for us to be in the know on these matters. We made sure we distributed that information,” said Kennedy.

Related: Tax refund spurs more questions than answers

She said three businesses expressed immediate gratitude because they were preparing invoices using the higher sales tax rate. Others posed their own follow-up questions to the chamber.

“Unfortunately, we are unable to answer the most pressing question,” said Kennedy. “Where’s that money going to go?”