Property taxes scaring you?

Here's a chance to let legislators know

Article Courtesy of The Sun Sentinel

By Mark Hollis
Published  January 28, 2007


TALLAHASSEE -- Randy Aube of Boca Raton would like to move to Broward County, but he's afraid he can't afford the taxes.

He pays $4,300 a year in property tax on the home he has lived in for six years. If he moves and buys a place of similar value, he thinks the taxes will skyrocket to $14,000.

"My next-door neighbor, who bought his house a few years after I did, is paying about twice as much [as I am]," Aube wrote in a recent letter to state Rep. Adam Hasner, R-Delray Beach. "That just doesn't make any sense. I know [property taxes are] a huge complicated problem, but if it doesn't get fixed, it's only going to get worse."

South Florida homeowners angry about high tax bills -- and the threat of paying even more if they move -- can sound off to legislators, Democrat and Republican alike, at meetings on the topic early next month. Eight town-hall-style hearings will be held across the state, including hearings in Lake Worth, Fort Lauderdale and Miami.

Legislators have set the stage for a big debate at the legislative session scheduled to start in March.

Gov. Charlie Crist and many legislators want to trim the taxes people pay on their homes. They are talking about a constitutional amendment that legislators would write and voters could approve as early as this summer. The proposal, for starters, would double the current $25,000 homestead exemption, which lowers the assessed value of a home. Under the existing exemption, the owner of a $200,000 house pays property tax on $175,000 of that value.

The Republican governor also wants to let homeowners take some or all of their so-called "Save Our Homes" tax savings if they move. That 24-year-old constitutional provision caps tax increases at 3 percent a year no matter how much the value of a home increases. But those savings are lost when a homeowner moves, and the cap doesn't apply to businesses, rental properties and vacation homes.

This month, Crist and legislators enacted changes to drastically cut property insurance rates. But property tax cuts might be a bigger fight.

Local government officials say tax cuts of any significance will siphon money from everything from local parks to the salaries of police officers, firefighters and teachers.

Lauderdale Lakes Finance Director Larry Tibbs is among those who are worried. He says if homeowners' homestead exemptions are doubled, his city would lose $1 million a year.

"To make up that difference," Tibbs said, his city "would have to raise the [tax] rate."

Crist wants local governments, which have expanded their budgets until the last year or two with a booming real estate market, to spend less.

"They are going to have to have a little more discipline at the local level to help the people," he said.

Many Republican legislators are joining the call for spending cuts by cities and counties. They say total taxes levied at the local level climbed from $16.6 billion in 2001 to $30.4 billion last year, an 83 percent increase that outpaced the 12 percent population growth in the same period.

"Florida doesn't have a revenue problem," said Sen. Mike Haridopolous, an Indialantic Republican who leads the Senate's Finance and Tax Committee. "We have a spending problem."

Palm Beach County resident Larry Zalkin agrees it's time for the state to slash property taxes, even if it means tightening city and county budgets.

"This is the ideal time to fix the situation," said Zalkin, who serves on a county advisory board. "The surpluses are there. This might be the time to start sharing [budget surpluses] with the public."

The property tax debate is only getting started. State leaders say everything is on the table, even though House Speaker Marco Rubio insists any tax cuts be across the board and be melded with stiff spending caps for cities, counties and school districts.

"[Property tax cuts] have to help the owner of the apartment building, so that hopefully they'll pass it through to their tenant," said Rubio, a West Miami Republican. "It also has to help the owner of the laundromat or the dry-cleaning store at the corner."

Property tax changes like those Crist is backing appeal to Eileen Rennick, a widow who moved to Century Village in Deerfield Beach in 1999. She became accustomed to paying $104 a year in taxes on a one-bedroom condominium. But two years ago, when she moved across the street into a two-bedroom condo, her taxes increased to $1,040 a year.

"It's outrageous," Rennick said. "If I had known, I wouldn't have [moved]."