LEARY and STEVE BOUSQUET
TALLAHASSEE - State Sen. Dennis Jones owns two waterfront homes - one big and one small. But from the tax bills alone, it's hard to tell them apart.
The big one in Treasure Island has a market value of nearly $735,000. The other, as Jones described it, is a "tiny bunkhouse" in Dunnellon worth $174,000.
They're vastly different except in one glaring respect: Property taxes on Jones' home are only $700 more than on his weekend escape on the Rainbow River.
Jones also has a house in Tallahassee and while far more modest than his primary home, the difference in taxes is only $230.
"Florida's property taxes are obscene," said Jones, a chiropractor in his 27th year of lawmaking. "We have to find a better way to structure them."
Without the controversial 3 percent property tax cap and $25,000 homestead exemption on his main home, Jones would be paying more than $13,600 a year in property taxes in the house he has called home since 1983. Thanks largely to Save Our Homes, he paid $3,861 last year. (He also got a small discount for paying early.)
Since 1995, the voter-approved cap on tax increases on primary, or homesteaded, properties has meant that taxes have risen much faster on other properties: second homes, rentals and commercial properties.
Now, as lawmakers consider how to revamp the tax structure, a primary goal is to ease the burden on nonhomesteaded properties.
A review of lawmakers' financial disclosure forms shows that more than half of them have second homes, condos, rental property or vacant land that's absorbing the brunt of the tax burden in Florida.
Rep. Charlie Dean, R-Inverness, where he has his primary residence, owns a 1,200-square-foot concrete block recreation home in Levy County just north of his hometown. The property taxes on the second place are $4,800.
"I understand the people's plight because I'm part of that plight," Dean said.
Sen. Victor Crist, R-Tampa, saw taxes on his modest townhome in Tallahassee double last year to $2,600 because the home is not protected by Save Our Homes, which limits annual increases on taxable assessments to 3 percent.
"I wasn't happy about it," Crist said.
Crist has bigger problems. He is moving to a new home in Tampa, leaving the one he lived in since 1987. Because the Save Our Homes cap applies only after a home has been owned for two years, Crist will have no protection from skyrocketing assessments.
"I'm going to get smacked hard," Crist said.
One of the ideas lawmakers are considering is making the Save Our Homes tax cap portable so longtime homeowners, like Crist, could apply it to a newly purchased house.
Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, also has a place in Tallahassee with an assessed value of $270,000. Her taxes have more than doubled in the past couple of years, to more than $4,400.
"I can relate to all the people who are dealing with this problem," said Dockery. "It's a rather expensive pinch."
House Speaker Marco Rubio, R-Miami, owns a home in Tallahassee with Rep. David Rivera, also of Miami. The previous owner paid less than $900 in taxes but taxes shot up to $1,849 after it was sold. Last year, Rubio and Rivera paid $1,985.
The problem is not limited to Save Our Homes. Many blame an assessment practice that values a property at its "highest and best" use rather than its actual use.
Rep. Julio Robaina, R-Miami, said that is part of the reason property taxes have surged upward on his second home in Tallahassee.
Robaina said developers have bought nearby small homes like his, then torn them down to make room for bigger ones. In doing so, they have caused the assessments on the smaller homes to rise.
"I went to the Leon County property appraiser to complain," Robaina said, "and they said, 'You guys have to take care of this.' "
Bills have been filed to limit highest and best use to only those properties with permits in place for more ambitious buildings, or to eliminate the practice altogether and allow appraisers only to consider current use.
Either way, the benefits would generally be felt by commercial property owners, not residential owners like Robaina. "But I support what they are trying to do," he said.
The situation is not limited to attractive waterfront properties. Rep. Frank Peterman saw taxes double on the second home he owns on the south side of St. Petersburg where his mother lives.
"It's crazy," the Democrat said. "You'd think that in that part of St. Pete it wouldn't go up that much. It's unconscionable."