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Hillsborough looks at focusing taxes to fight blight

Published Mar. 11, 2013

TAMPA — If you live in Brandon, the money you pay in property taxes each year can go to fill potholes in Westchase or toward part of the salary of a firefighter based in Apollo Beach.

Those tax dollars flow into a general pot and county commissioners decide where they're needed most.

But in more than a half-dozen places in the city of Tampa, a portion of residents' tax payments stays in their neighborhood. City officials decided at some point that those area, including Ybor City and Drew Park, deserved special attention to fight blight.

Hillsborough County commissioners are now considering a similar approach of retaining tax dollars in specific, struggling neighborhoods in the name of promoting economic development. The money could go toward widening or repaving roads, fixing flooding problems and making the selected places more attractive for people looking to build a home or business.

"I've seen it work in the city of Tampa and I know it can work in the unincorporated areas," said Commissioner Les Miller, who is promoting the approach. "Hopefully what happens is in those areas we start putting in that infrastructure, development might go in."

Hillsborough commissioners voted unanimously two weeks ago to consider creating the so-called tax increment finance districts in three areas: near the University of South Florida, near the Florida State Fairgrounds and in the neighborhoods of Progress Village, Clair-Mel and Palm River along Causeway Boulevard.

County Administrator Mike Merrill and his staff have been tasked with coming back with a plan to kick-start the effort March 20. The proposal comes as commissioners explore a variety of ways of refocusing county government to better promote economic development as the region continues to rebound from the downturn.

They've created grant programs for small businesses and to promote technology startups. They're talking about re-prioritizing road projects to focus on those that promote private investment nearby and looking to designate specific parts of the county as economic development areas where they want to steer high-tech jobs.

Miller's proposed tax-increment financing districts could meld with the idea of designating economic development areas by promoting renovation and reinvestment.

"All of this is related," said Lucia Garsys, deputy county administrator for infrastructure and development services. "They're all cousins or brothers and sisters, if you will, of the same desired outcome."

Here's how tax increment finance districts generally work: Elected officials identify a specific geographic area as blighted or in need of special attention. They then develop a plan for how to address the blight and, hopefully, make it a more inviting place to live or work.

They would then establish a base year, after which the area's growth in county property taxes would have to be spent there.

So if you own a home that has $1,000 in county property taxes and the taxable value increases by 3 percent next year, the $30 increase would stay in your neighborhood.

Across several square miles of homes and businesses, that can add up to millions of dollars, if not tens of millions.

"The idea is, but for this investment, these areas really wouldn't improve much on their own," said Bonnie Wise, chief financial administrator for the county.

Miller says the money could be used to install pipes that alleviate longtime flooding problems in Progress Village or to clean tap water that runs foul in parts of Palm River. It could widen roads near the fairgrounds that have been clogged by traffic to and from the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino.

Commissioner Victor Crist said he'd like to see university-area money put toward converting 131st Street into a new, attractive gateway to USF that would encourage private investment near the campus.

"It helps an area feed itself and to grow," Crist said.

He said it has particularly prudent to create such designations when real estate values are depressed so that if the economy rebounds, the gains in tax money available for rejuvenation can be substantial. Crist said he promoted a similar approach more than two decades ago but was rebuffed by commissioners.

Critics, such as former County Commissioner Jan Platt, say such districts restrict elected officials from making spending decisions that are in the best interest of the entire community. They limit flexibility.

"That's just as true today as it was then," Platt said of Crist's previous push for a special taxing district near USF. "It's just completely opposite what needs to be happening in this day and time."

Crist argues that if a special taxing district had been created years ago, when the university area first earned the nickname "Suitcase City" for its abundance of transient residents, it might look much different today.

"There would be no Suitcase City," he said.

Bill Varian can be reached at varian@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3387.

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