Crist criticizes local governments for `despicable' tactics in property tax fight

Article Courtesy of The Sun Sentinel

By Josh Hafenbrack
Published May 22, 2007


Gov. Charlie Crist hammered local governments on Monday for their tactics in warning against property tax cuts, using an appearance in South Florida to counter what he called "despicable" claims by local officials that cuts will mean layoffs for police and firefighters.

"Not one firefighter will be let off, not one police officer," Crist told a packed lunch crowd of 740 at the Forum Club of the Palm Beaches in West Palm Beach. "And shame on the local governments who put that fear in you."

Crist's admonitions came even as state legislators met in Tallahassee for a new round of negotiations leading up to next month's special session on the issue.

South Florida cities are among those warning of dire consequences from deep property tax cuts. For example, Delray Beach threatened one plan in the Legislature would mean 116 layoffs, including 23 police officers.

"They put the fear in the families of those people too, and that's not right," Crist said, taking aim at local leaders. "Who are these people? Who does that? What local governments will do is prioritize just like you do every day.

"You may have one less dog park. OK. But you will get the services you deserve and you'll get your [tax] break."

County and city officials insisted deep property tax reductions would mean cuts to public safety, because that makes up a big part of local budgets. Palm Beach County Administrator Bob Weisman said the governor's property tax cut plan would slice almost $200 million from the $4.3 billion budget.

"In our case, clearly we don't want to lay off any firefighters or sheriff's guys, but it depends on the level of cuts they mandate," he said. "I believe the cities are going to have to cut fire and police, because they have no place else to turn to. And we're in that same boat if we get the bigger cuts."

Pembroke Park Town Manager Bob Levy said that he is not trying to use scare tactics, but the town is facing a financial crisis. The town has to come up with an extra $1 million for its contract with the Broward Sheriff's Office in 2008.

"We're caught between the police wanting a million more next year and the governor cutting off our funding, basically," Levy said.

"We have not been out there screaming," added Broward Mayor Josephus Eggelletion, noting the county was looking to trim government services this year regardless of what the Legislature does.

In Tallahassee, legislative negotiators on Monday began zeroing in on a plan to expand the state's homestead exemption law. Legislators as yet have no idea how the potential remedy would affect local governments, but House Speaker Marco Rubio said he would like to see a minimum annual $5 billion tax cut.

Rubio, R-West Miami, downplayed concerns from local government officials, pointing out that property taxes grew twice as fast as personal income over the last five years in Florida.

"It is hard to justify how government revenues have been able to grow at a 2-to-1 ratio over the people who have to pay it," he said, adding, "This is not designed to be some sort of supreme sneak attack on local governments."

On June 12, legislators are set to meet in a 10-day special session to revamp Florida's property tax system. Crist said legislators are closer than ever to a deal because Rubio's controversial plan to swap property taxes for an increased sales tax has been removed from the negotiations.