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Property Tax Cutbacks Exacting Personal Tolls
SOURCE: The Tampa Tribune
JEROME R. STOCKFISCH
July 19 2007

The edict has come from Tallahassee to Florida's local governments: Cut your property tax collections. Stop the unchecked revenue growth that has accompanied Florida's valuation boom. Trim the fat.

City and county governments are preparing budgets for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1. There are common targets for the budget erasers: Jobs. Planned program expansions. Equipment purchases.

Deeper in local spending plans, however, one person's fat is another's passion. Don't try to convince Jan Vroegindewey that Jacksonville's quaint canning center is expendable. Don't tell Betty Green that the Tallahassee Police Department doesn't need a victim's advocate unit.

Here is a look at the types of programs facing elimination or cutbacks. Local governments are in the midst of the lengthy budget-approval process, so these aren't final.

TALLAHASSEE - It was enough to get Betty Green out of her Crawfordville mobile home and over to City Hall to complain.

Green, the mother of a Tallahassee police officer killed in the line of duty while responding to a home invasion in 2002, heard the capital city was planning to eliminate its police department's victim advocate program - a program she said played a vital role in her recovery from her family's tragedy.

"It's so important. It's so hard to lose someone like that," she said, speaking of her son, Sgt. Dale Green. "I found great support. They [the victim advocates] are there when you need them, and they're still there in later times."

Green is one of at least 16 area residents to complain about the potential loss of the unit either in person or in writing as Tallahassee firms up its fiscal 2008 budget.

It's a scene being repeated across the state as the impact of the Legislature's mandate to cut local property taxes starts to show up as layoffs, "closed" signs, fewer local services and shorter hours at everything from libraries to ball fields.

Special events budgets are being slashed across the state, meaning Fourth of July fireworks, Easter egg hunts and other festivals are in the crosshairs.

In tiny Mount Dora north of Orlando and the Fort Lauderdale suburb of Tamarac, city pools likely will close during the winter months. Flagler County probably won't buy new computers, cars or other vehicles next year.

In Jacksonville, a vintage city canning center appears to be doomed.

"To see that on the chopping block, it just sickens me," said Jan Vroegindewey, a regular visitor to the Jacksonville facility with her four children.

Amid steamers, sterilization equipment, institutional-sized stoves and huge pots, county extension agents and volunteers have taught northeast Florida residents how to safely prepare and can their own food since the 1930s. The center thrived during the age of the World War II victory gardens.

It is now used by residents ranging from seniors on special diets to sailors heading to sea. Jacksonville budget writers, however, are finding the $67,000 annual city subsidy is a little steep in the era of property tax revolt.

The loss will hurt, Vroegindewey said.

"You stand around with 10 other people, and everybody's doing their own recipe," she said. "There's a sharing of ideas. There's a sense of community. It's like the quilting bees of old, or the men who used to sit around at the gas station. For them to take it away, I just want to say, 'Shame on everybody.'"

Antitax Sentiment Prevails City and county officials are hearing these complaints as budget hearings unfold across the state. An even greater din, though, was raised in Tallahassee this year as homeowners who faced ever-increasing property tax bills convinced lawmakers that local governments needed to be reined in at the state level.

The antitax crowd came with ammunition. With median house prices jumping 90 percent statewide from 2001 to 2006, property tax revenue - and homeowners' tax bills - rose by a similar number. Yet an inflation and population growth index grew just 32 percent in the period.

The Save Our Homes benefit envisioned as a lifesaver to homesteaders who would have valuations capped at 3 percent instead served to lock longtime residents into their homes. They couldn't afford to lose the benefit with a property transfer and a new, substantially higher tax rate.

In a special legislative session in June, lawmakers settled on a two-pronged strategy to provide lower property tax bills.

First, they mandated a freeze on existing local tax revenues. Then, a formula that compared a local government's tax performance with statewide averages was used to determine whether the locals would have to roll back their revenue collections by 9 percent, 5 percent, 3 percent or just to the freeze.

Lawmakers also introduced the concept of a "super exemption" that would provide a greater benefit than the existing flat $25,000 homestead exemption and eventually phase out Save Our Homes.

That benefit would be 75 percent of the first $200,000 in home value and 15 percent of the next $300,000. A $200,000 home would receive a $150,000 homestead exemption and have a taxable value of $50,000. A $400,000 home would receive a $165,000 exemption to be taxed at $235,000.

Homeowners would be allowed to keep the Save Our Homes scenario if they felt it would be more beneficial.

The rollback was ordered through a change in state law. Because the homestead exemption and Save Our Homes caps are embedded in the state Constitution, voters will have to decide this proposal at the polls Jan. 29.

State Sen. Mike Haridopolos, the chief architect of the tax plan in the upper chamber, also has heard complaints at the local level, but he considers the mandated cutbacks doable.

"The bottom line is that there's a difference between what you want and what you can afford," said Haridopolos, an Indialantic Republican. "Families and businesses have been making these decisions for years, and government for the first time in years is having to make these decisions."

Some programs are better off funded through charities or the private sector, he said. "We're just hopeful that the primary needs - police, fire, transportation needs - are not being reduced. There are other programs that we'd like to have but just can't afford right now. And those will probably be the first ones cut."

They're Popular But 'Nonessential' That has meant some tough choices at the local level. The loss of the four-officer victim advocate program in Tallahassee will hurt, said police spokesman David McCranie, but the alternative might be fewer officers on the streets.

"We recognize that there's not a single thing you can cut from our department that would be easy," he said. "We do support the city manager's decision; we know something has to be done."

Some communities are choosing spots to make up some of the lost revenue. In Martin County, north of West Palm Beach, it's going to cost nonresident accident victims hundreds of dollars to get cut out of crashed cars. Pasco is looking to boost ambulance fees. Broward may modify its living wage ordinance, which requires contractors working on county contracts to pay workers significantly more than the minimum wage, thus boosting the cost of such projects.

Most, such as the city of Weston in Broward, look to protect core priorities of public safety, infrastructure and reserves, and then consider what City Manager John Flint calls "nonessential services."

Weston's Fourth of July celebration, annual spring concert and holiday lighting likely will be eliminated, he said. That's not as easy a call as it might seem.

"There's a tremendous community value in those types of things," Flint said. "Those are the types of things that build pride in a community."

He adds, however, that "I, for one, as city manager, would hate to be in a position to say, 'Hey, Mrs. Jones, we've eliminated an EMS unit and couldn't save your husband, but boy, we're having a hell of a Fourth of July celebration.'

"The bottom line is there's no free lunch. If you want services, there's a cost, and you have to pay. If you want tax savings, then you're going to have to do without some things."

Reporter Jerome R. Stockfisch can be reached at (850) 222-8382 or jstockfisch@tampatrib.com.

~end~