Palm Beach County politicians plan campaign against 'super' homestead exemption
By Josh Hafenbrack
South Florida Sun-Sentinel
September 21, 2007
Political and local government leaders in south Palm Beach County began coordinating a campaign Thursday on the "super" homestead exemption with commercials, fact sheets stuffed in water bills, government-promoted tax calculators and community forums.
And County Commissioner Mary McCarty, who led the strategy session of mayors, council members and administrators from a dozen cities, broached an idea that could be contentious: using taxpayer dollars to fund the efforts.
Local leaders at the meeting said approval Jan. 29 of the state constitutional amendment would strip them of millions in government revenues, on top of losses from this year's state-ordered cuts of up to 9 percent. And they argued the changes wouldn't fix the inequities in Florida's tax system that force snowbirds and commercial property owners to pay a much bigger share.
McCarty said if local governments use tax money to do voter outreach on the amendment, "editorial boards will go nuts." But she added, "I think there's a credibility issue with the Legislature here that once people are educated on, we can capitalize on."
McCarty said her goal is to educate the public on the amendment, not campaign against it.
"If they're going to save money on this, they should do it," she said. "But a lot of people are being led to believe they're going to save money, but they're not. It's our job to educate them."
If approved by 60 percent of voters in January, the "super" exemption would give residents a choice: either stick with their Save Our Homes tax break, or opt for a new homestead formula that would exempt 75 percent of the first $200,000 of a home's value and 15 percent of the next $300,000 in value.
McCarty said the local campaign could include countywide commercials and public service announcements. Other ideas included outlining the pros and cons of the tax referendum in pamphlets, sponsoring speakers and community discussions and posting tax calculators on city Web sites to show people how they might fare under the new system. McCarty even suggested cities could run property tax projections for each homeowner and send them out.
Rep. Adam Hasner, R-Boca Raton, issued a rebuke of the cities' role in the property tax debate. He said residents disappointed over this year's tax relief should look to local officials, who he said ran a "massive oppositional campaign during the session to oppose the minimal tax relief they got."
Local leaders at Thursday's strategy session were sensitive to the political dynamics, noting that Gov. Charlie Crist has indicated he'll campaign for the issue, backed by millions in promised contributions from business groups.
"The governor is polling very high in popularity," said McCarty, a Republican like Crist. "So I think a lot of people are nervous about going up against such a popular governor. But when you dig deeper, you find there are some vulnerabilities on the tax issue."
Manalapan Mayor William Benjamin put the cities' mission this way: "The more people get to know about this, the less they approve of it." Boca Raton Mayor Steven Abrams said his city ran a calculation and discovered that 75 percent of residents might not see any benefit from the new system.
Highland Beach offered itself as a model. The City Commission voted unanimously to oppose the Jan. 29 amendment and used its quarterly newsletter hitting homes next month to highlight its position and "clearly describe both sides of the issue" to residents, said Town Manager Dale Sugerman.
Only one elected official at the meeting — Gulf Stream Mayor Bill Koch — identified government spending as a culprit in high taxes.
"The real problem is all these governmental bodies spend too much damn money and throw it all away, including the County Commission," he said, calling local budgets a "monstrosity."