Anti-tax rallies build in Capitol as lawmakers debate property tax relief
Posted April 17 2007, 11:42 AM EDT
TALLAHASSEE – As busloads of angry property owners from across the state traveled to the state Capitol for anti-tax rallies on Tuesday, state lawmakers began a fiery debate over how sharply and how broadly to deliver property tax relief.
State senators began the deliberations by discussing a concept new to this session's property tax debate: Whether to cap impact fees for local governments in addition to limiting the amount that property taxes can grow each year.
Sen. Jeff Atwater, a Palm Beach Gardens Republican who is set to be the next Senate president, proposed to ban cities and counties from increasing impact fees faster than rates of inflation.
Impact fees by local governments, including school districts, are tacked onto home construction costs and often used to pay for the expenses tied to new developments, such as new schools and utilities.
Lawmakers also heard directly from a Broward County commissioner, as well as a lobbyist for the Palm Beach County government, about the sharp cuts to occur in South Florida as a result of either the House or the Senate's proposed tax cut plans.
The House tax plan, set for a preliminary vote by the full House this afternoon, attempts to whittle $5-billion a year from cities and counties, while also giving voters the option of replacing homestead property tax rolls with an increase in the state sales tax by 2.5 cents. The Senate's proposal would cut about $2 billion a year through a variety of tax cuts and policy changes.
Gov. Charlie Crist remains hesitant about saying which plan he prefers.
``My preference is that we drop property taxes like a rock,'' Crist told reporters. ``More is better in terms of reduction. The people of Florida are angry ... and they're upset, distressed and worried about paying the next bill. They want as much relief as we can give.''
Kristen Jacobs, a Broward County commissioner, told senators that the Senate proposal, while preferable to her over the House plan, could be damaging to local projects and needs. She complained that the proposal even penalizes counties, such as Broward, that have either reduced or lowered tax rates in recent years.
The Senate plan, she said, would shave $70 million a year from the county's spending plan. The cuts, she said, will force county managers to pare back spending on mass transit projects aimed at reducing traffic congestion and to postpone opening of new libraries and parks.
``These impacts to Broward County are huge,'' Jacobs told senators.
Jacobs also complained that the Senate's plan would tame the spending of certain special taxing districts that have their budgets tied to cities and counties but not restrain as greatly other special tax districts, such as water management districts. There are more than 90 special taxing districts in Broward County alone.
Sen. Ted Deutch, a Democrat from Broward County, reminded Jacobs that county officials could vote, if a supermajority of their board, to override the spending rollbacks proposed by lawmakers.
``Is there any elected official who wants to vote to increase taxes?'' Jacobs responded. ``I wouldn't vote for a budget that would increase (tax) rates...I have not voted for a tax increase and don't want to...But what's really frustrating is that the House and Senate get the ability to put the gold star on (by voting for tax cuts) and you get to wear the gold star, and we (local officials) have to deliver the news of reduced services.''
Todd Bonlarron, a Palm Beach County lobbyist, spoke only briefly at the Senate hearing. But he noted that the Senate's proposal would strike about $64 million out of the Palm Beach County budget.
Atwater reminded observers that legislators aren't trying to punish local governments but to deliver tax relief.
``This is all about one's ability to stay and maintain their own property,'' he said. ``It is not about any slap down or any effort to be dictating from afar.''
The proposed impact fee cap Atwater proposed but later withdrew before it came to a vote is sought by Florida homebuilders but is opposed by city and county lobbyists.
Local government lobbyists argued at a hearing of the Senate Finance and Tax Committee that the cap would too radically tie the hands of local officials.
``If we are going to be constrained with both of those (property taxes and impact fees), growth will stop,'' said Sarah Blakely, a lobbyist for the Florida Association of Counties. ``If we can't pay for the schools, the roads the parks, we are not going to have financially feasible (growth management) plans.''
John Smith, a lobbyist for the Florida League of Cities, which represents 412 municipalities statewide, said that an impact fee cap would paralyze local officials' ability to provide services. ``You are getting into an area that is just very scary to local governments,'' he said.