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  1. Florida Politics

Tarpon Springs catches decades-old mistake in charter

TARPON SPRINGS — For the past month, city officials have been talking about getting rid of a city rule limiting tax increases. But whatever they decide won't change the fact that the rule has been effectively useless since voters approved it nearly 20 years ago.

Why? Because the change in 1995 was in direct conflict with a state law passed in 1973.

And in the ultimate irony, the lawyer who figured out in 2014 that it was illegal was the city attorney who helped craft it in 1995.

In the '70s, the state banned cities from restricting tax decisions made by governing bodies. That means Tarpon's rule, embedded in the city charter, to take drastic tax increases to a public vote (an option they've never actually employed) holds no power.

Such a vote would go against state law and could never carry weight, city attorney Jay Daigneault told commissioners last month.

Now, commissioners are considering removing the tax rate referendum requirement from the charter, the city's governing document, after public hearings later this fall.

Striking that rule would serve only to keep the charter error-free. Commissioners always had the authority to raise taxes by any amount they choose.

That's something no one told Charter Review Commission chairman John Tarapani in the '90s when he set out to restrict future commissioners from drastically raising the tax rate.

In all the time since, no one has caught the discrepancy between city and state law. Tarpon commissioners have opted for more mild tax increases, or, more recently, no increase at all. The rate has stayed flat for the last five years.

The mistake went unnoticed by countless city officials until this summer, when former city attorney Herb Elliott combed through Tarpon's governing documents and alerted Daigneault to his own misstep 20 years before.

Elliott, who missed the error over the years while spearheading multiple rounds of the Charter Revision Commission, wasn't even a member when the group convened this summer. He spotted the issue while researching a different topic related to the charter.

It's easy to catch errors by Googling state law, a luxury no one was afforded in the mid '90s.

"What was surprising was that this was on the ballot and in the charter so long and no one really even caught it," Mayor David Archie said. "For 20 years it's been there and everyone just assumed, in terms of the attorneys … I don't think that any of them even looked at it to even do any research, because there was no need."

After learning of Elliott's catch, Vice Mayor Jeff Larsen hesitated to support removing the offending provision, as Daigneault recommended.

The question the commission faces is whether to remove a symbolic gesture: the idea that future commissioners will consider the public's opinion before hiking the tax rate.

"There's no symbolism in charters and rules," City Manager Mark LeCouris said. "We thought that symbol was based in fact."

Contact Julie Kliegman at jkliegman@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4159. Follow @jmkliegman.

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