Local officials say a more generous homestead exemption could reduce government services

Published July 21, 2017

TAMPA — Local government officials bemoaned the likely effect of a voter-approved increase in the homestead tax exemption — even a Florida TaxWatch spokesman opposed it — in a Tampa Tiger Bay Club forum Friday.

But the panel that discussed the measure was one-sided because no advocates appeared to defend it.

Club officials said they invited its backers — mostly Republican legislators, including House Speaker Richard Corcoran of Land O'Lakes and Sen. Tom Lee of Thonotosassa — but couldn't get any to attend.

One of the panelists, Tampa City Council member Harry Cohen, said he doesn't typically hear constituents complaining about their property taxes, though he said that may change now that Mayor Bob Buckhorn has proposed a budget with a tax increase.

He said the proposed increase in the homestead exemption would cost the city $5 million to $6 million a year and would impact "sidewalk construction, potholes, stormwater work, parks and recreation … the nuts and bolts of government that you all expect us to provide."

The Legislature passed the amendment this year with solid GOP majorities and a few Democrats in favor. It will be on the 2018 ballot as Amendment 1, requiring 60 percent of the vote to pass.

It would increase the homestead exemption from $50,000 to $75,000, but would apply only to homes worth $100,000 or more. Value between $100,000 and $125,000 would be exempt from taxation.

Hillsborough County Administrator Mike Merrill said the measure would cost the county about $30 million a year. He raised the specter of user fees in county parks if it passes.

"This will be a litmus test for what kinds of things government should do and how much," Merrill said.

Robert Weissert, vice president of TaxWatch, a nonprofit watchdog organization on tax policy, said the group opposes the measure despite its reputation for favoring government efficiency and lower taxes, because, "it's a tax shift, it's not a tax cut."

He said it would increase inequality in taxation by shifting the property tax burden away from homeowners and on to rental and other nonhomestead properties.

Rep. Wengay Newton, D-St. Petersburg, who opposed the measure, laid blame for it on Republicans who dominate the Legislature.

"It's 79-41" Republicans to Democrats in the House, and 25-15 in the Senate, he said. "All we can do is speak the truth to power."

Yvonne Fry, the club's program chairman, said Lee couldn't participate in the forum because of a long-planned family vacation. She said all the Republicans in the Hillsborough County legislative delegation were invited.

Club president Vic DiMaio said Corcoran couldn't attend because he was holding a fundraiser in the Panhandle. A Corcoran staffer confirmed that's where he was.

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