Weston mayor's property tax suit draws attention
July 14, 2007
Eric Hersh will tell you he's not one to seek the spotlight. Yet that's exactly where the Weston mayor has found himself.
Hersh put himself there Monday by filing a lawsuit asking the state's high court to block "a flawed" property tax amendment from going on the Jan. 29 ballot. The suit claims the proposal will confuse voters and oversteps the power of local governments to set their own tax rates.
"I've never backed down from a fight in my life," said Hersh, whose lawsuit names Secretary of State Kurt Browning as the defendant. With Browning's offices in Tallahassee, the state's high court sent Hersh's petition to the circuit court in Leon County on Thursday.
The proposed amendment Hersh is fighting would allow homeowners a choice: Keep the current Save Our Homes tax assessment cap, which limits increases to 3 percent a year and includes a $25,000 homestead exemption. Or claim a super-exemption that would knock 75 percent off the first $200,000 of a home's taxable value and 15 percent off the next $300,000.
Hersh argues voters may not realize they could permanently lose their tax cap if they choose the second option.
Since filing the lawsuit, Hersh, a Democrat, has been praised and criticized — but mainly criticized.
State Senate President Ken Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie, accused Hersh of trying to derail the largest tax cut in state history; one Weston resident sent a letter to Gov. Charlie Crist asking him to suspend Hersh; and a Wellington resident sent the second-term mayor an e-mail threatening a recall effort.
However, Weston resident Renee Smoley praised Hersh, saying "he has the best interests of Weston at heart."
Meanwhile, Hersh's phone hasn't stopped ringing with media requests from around the state for interviews.
"I don't get much sleep these days," said Hersh, who finds himself chatting on the air by 7 a.m., juggling phone calls all day, then heading to bed at midnight after replying to e-mails inquiring about his lawsuit — all the while handling his job as branch manager at the investment firm Raymond James & Associates in Weston.
"My wife wants to know why on earth I would do something like this," Hersh said. "The answer is, you have to do what you think is right no matter what the consequences. I can't live life worrying about who likes me and who doesn't."
This is not the first controversial political move for Hersh, who still plays ice hockey at 47.
Mayor since 2001, Hersh took on Miriam Oliphant five years ago, becoming one of the first to demand her ouster as Broward County Supervisor of Elections. Last year, he cast the lone vote urging the city to continue researching the cost of building an indoor sports palace with two ice rinks. The commission, which had expected to pay $9 million, killed the project after estimated costs ballooned to $27 million.
Foes of Hersh criticize him for not being a college grad. Fans defend him as naturally brilliant. Both concede his legal battle proves he has daring.
"He's very strong-willed," said one friend, Debi Levy. "A tad stubborn at times, but that can be good."
This week, Hersh said the Legislature's proposed tax reform will take a drastic toll on city governments but save the average taxpayer only about $100 a year.
State Rep. Adam Hasner, R-Boca Raton, majority leader of the House, accused Hersh of scare tactics. "This whole lawsuit is just a political smokescreen," said Hasner, whose district extends into Deerfield Beach. "Local governments are opposed to any property tax cuts whatsoever."
Hersh has urged local governments to join his lawsuit. So far, he has no takers.
"I think some people are hanging back to see what the political consequences are," he said. "They want to see if I'm alive in a month."
Hersh has come under attack from critics who mistakenly think his lawsuit is being paid for by taxpayers. Hersh, who filed the challenge as a resident and mayor of Weston, is quick to point out that Jamie Cole, city attorney for Weston, is handling the case at no charge.
This week, Weston resident Stuart Slutsky sent a letter to Crist urging an investigation into whether it was proper for Hersh to accept free representation from Cole.
Hersh said he is not breaking any laws and noted he backed Slutsky's opponent when Slutsky ran for city commission in 2005.
Referring to his lawsuit as the biggest fight of his political career, Hersh warned of dire consequences to the state's residents should he fail.
On Friday, Hersh left town on business, but expects the drama to follow him to New York — and that's fine with him.
"I don't expect to get away from it," he said. "I'll have my laptop and cell phone."