As property tax vote nears, distortions abound
January 10, 2008
The flier showed up in my mailbox last week. It pictured a police officer and firefighter with the warning: "There is something dangerous about Amendment 1." In blood red letters, it declared: "The results will be catastrophic."
Sent by the union-backed Florida Is Our Home group, the flier predicted dire cuts to emergency services if the property tax amendment on the Jan. 29 ballot passed. It also called the amendment "a reckless tax scheme that benefits out-of-state property owners."
After all, the proposal benefits longtime Florida homeowners the most and does almost nothing for snowbirds and owners of commercial and rental property.
While homesteaded residents would get increased exemptions and the ability to transfer Save Our Homes benefits when they move, snowbirds and landlords would get a 10 percent cap on annual increases in assessed value.
To paint this amendment as a boon to out-of-state property owners is like saying the closing of an auto factory promotes workplace safety.
So I called Karen Woodall, chairwoman of the Florida Is Our Home coalition, to deliver my own message: The distortions and alarmism were such a turnoff, I almost felt like jumping to the yes camp. I oppose the amendment because it preserves an unfair system, with huge tax disparities between longtime residents and everyone else.
"We're not opposed to making changes to the property tax system," said Woodall, who defended the flier's wording as accurate. "Our groups just think this isn't the best long-term approach."
I knew fear-mongering would be a big part of the unions' campaign, because the specter of shuttered firehouses and unsafe streets is always an effective weapon.
But a state that has seen annual property tax collections nearly double from $16 billion to more than $30 billion the last five years can probably absorb a $2 billion-a-year rollback without triggering Armageddon.
With less than three weeks to go, distortions have ruled on both sides of the debate. The amendment needs 60 percent approval to pass.
Amendment 1 supporters began airing a commercial on Wednesday with Gov. Charlie Crist that touted: "Yes on 1 doubles the homestead exemption."
Not exactly. It increases the homestead exemption but doesn't actually double it. That's because the boost from $25,000 to $50,000 applies only to the non-schools portion of property tax bills, about 60 percent in most places.
And then there's Broward Property Appraiser Lori Parrish, who included a newsletter that was a tacit endorsement of the amendment along with 435,000 homestead renewal notices mailed last week. It's headline: "Proposed tax reform amendment: Something for everyone," and it pictured a pecan pie with four equally divided slices.
As if everyone will share the bounty from this plan equally. Many will still be stuck with tax bills two or three times higher than their neighbors'.
Parrish, a big backer of the portability concept, defended the newsletter, saying it provided timely information. She said she could have gone further by writing, "Vote Yes on 1," but decided not to "because I wanted to step back and just give facts."
Her in-house attorney, Ron Gunzburger, cited a 1991 Florida Supreme Court ruling that said, "Local governments are not bound to keep silent in the face of a controversial vote that will have profound consequences for the community. Leaders have both a duty and a right to say which course of action they think best, and to make fair use of their offices for this purpose."
Parrish said including the newsletter didn't require additional postage. She has been regularly sending newsletters in her office's required mailings. The printing cost $20,118, less than a nickel apiece.
"Cities and counties do the same thing when there's a bond issue on the ballot," Parrish said. "If it's OK for mayors to speak out against this amendment, then it should be OK for me as an elected official to support it."