By DAVID DECAMP
Published July 28, 2007
Ordered by the Legislature to make deep property tax cuts, Largo and a few other Florida cities have made an important decision.
They won't do it.
The cities are not thumbing their noses at the Legislature. Rather, they are taking advantage of a procedure in the law that allows them to use a "supermajority vote" to override the otherwise mandatory cuts.
In so doing, they're trying to save some cherished programs.
But next year, Florida cities and counties will have to make more drastic cuts if voters approve a big increase in the homestead exemption.
If governments do face more cuts next year, "I assume a lot of counties will be" using supermajority votes to override them, predicted Pinellas County Commissioner Susan Latvala.
A supermajority is four members of a five member council, or five members of a seven person council.
Politicians, now and in the future, no doubt will feel pressure to preserve certain programs. But if they use the supermajority to reduce the amount of their constituents' tax cut, they do so at their political peril.
"Voters are going to ask, 'Is this the kind of person I want in office, who ... would not grant me any relief?' " said state Sen. Mike Haridopolos, R-Melbourne, a lawmaker behind the tax cut plan.
In brief, the plan ordered cities and counties to start with this year's tax revenue, and then make additional cuts of up to 9 percent.
And that's not the end of it.
If voters in January approve a big expansion of the homestead exemption, counties and cities will face another round of budget cuts next year, having presumably already made the easiest cuts.
The prospect frightens Latvala, who thinks the new cuts might be so onerous that "we'll be shutting down."
Already, city officials in Largo, Lakeland, Polk City and Sarasota say the deep state-ordered cuts endangered their quality of life.
Cuts are still possible, even expected, by the time budgets are finished this summer, but not to the level lawmakers ordered.
For Largo, complying with the state mandate would have meant closing the library on Sundays, closing two nature parks on weekdays and canceling a program for at-risk kids.
That was too much for five of the seven City Commission members. They voted Tuesday to use the override provision, preserving $1.5-million in tax receipts.
That leaves the board balancing residents' desires for tax cuts and reliable services.
"We're in the middle," said Mayor Pat Gerard, who downplayed political fears. "The community wants all kinds of things. They want to have their cake and eat it, too."
Even with Tuesday's vote, Largo's tax rate will still be lower than last year's. Dade City's commission took a similar route, voting unanimously Tuesday to override lawmakers but still lower the tax rate below this year's level. Interim City Manager Jim Class said the proposed rate gives the city the ability to balance the budget and wiggle room for unexpected expenses.
It's a different story in Polk City, population 1,500, which weathered three hurricanes in 2004. Since then it has built sewers and roads demanded by sparks of growth in northwest Polk County.
Polk City faced a 9 percent cut. But the City Council voted unanimously to adopt not a penny of that. It will keep this year's tax rate the same as last.
It spares the city a $100,000 loss and any layoffs to its 23-person work force, City Manager Cory Carrier said.
She suggested accounts of the entire public's desire for more cuts are exaggerated - but perhaps not among the most active residents.
"I think that in today's world, unfortunately, the people who are happy and the citizens who come out to vote are different people," Carrier said.
The truth of her contention may be determined Jan. 29. Voters across the state will decide the fate of a proposed constitutional amendment that would jack up the homestead exemption, taking another big slice out of the tax base for cities and counties.
Haridopolos thinks more cuts are what the voters want.
"People are telling us they want relief," he said, noting, "There's a difference between what you want and what you can afford."
It's true that most governments did not push back against the state-ordered cuts - this year.
In Pasco County, for instance, county commissioners complied with the 3 percent cut. Revenue from new construction buffered the impact, and there were no layoffs.
But if the referendum passes, Pasco's tax base could drop $5-billion, leading to a $25-million drop in county revenues.
"If it means taking law enforcement personnel off the street, I just find that incredibly difficult to do," said Commissioner Ted Schrader. In that case, he suggested he would be more likely to override the lawmakers, even though he's up for re-election in 2008.
"When we get into these essentials, then the situation is going to be quite difficult."