Angry property owners in Palm Beach County say soaring tax bills forcing them out

Article Courtesy of The Sun Sentinel

By Josh Hafenbrack
Published February 13 , 2007


WEST LAKE WORTH· A parade of residents, angry and armed with stories of spiraling tax bills, unloaded on state legislators for more than three hours Monday at a public hearing on property taxes, demanding lower bills and a stop to sharp increases in government spending.

Amid a mosaic of personal stories of financial anguish, more than 90 speakers in a crowd of 500 also seethed at their local leaders, taking aim at the Palm Beach County Commission for what many called wasteful spending.

Property taxes, said North Palm Beach resident Lawrence Morrisey, are a "tsunami that's offshore that is steamrolling its way to this state. And if we don't do something about it immediately, it's going to flatten this state."

Packed in Palm Beach Community College's Duncan Theatre, most who addressed a panel of state legislators on the House and Senate finance and tax committees were snowbirds or commercial and rental property owners. They are hit hardest by Florida's property tax system, which heavily favors homesteaded residential owners.

Snowbirds, clutching tax bill statements that are double or triple their homesteaded neighbors, called for equality.

Francis MacNeil, of Palm Beach Shores, struggled to keep his emotions in check as he described a property tax survey he did on his street. Among the 14 homesteaded property owners, the average tax increase over the past four years was $179. For the 16 without: $6,931.

"I came here to vent," MacNeil, 72, said. "I'm trying to keep my language civil, but I'm getting screwed. I apologize for the language, but it's absolutely brutal, what's going on here. It's just impossible to stay here."

As the Legislature prepares to tackle property taxes during its session next month, residents implored lawmakers to put shackles on counties and cities that would cap increases to a calculation based on growth and inflation.

Residents complained that county officials are spending tax money on new facilities, parks and programs while people are being taxed out of their homes.

Local leaders, resident Dan Sloan declared, are "pathologically incapable of limiting their spending by adjusting the [tax] rate. Make no mistake, they will vigorously oppose any meaningful changes like rabid dogs."

They warned that property taxes are emptying out condominium communities, squeezing businesses and crippling the real estate market.

"I hope you came here not just to listen but to act," said Joe Carballosa, 51, of Delray Beach. "2008 is too late. Something quick was done for property insurance. Why can't something quick be done for property taxes?"

Wellington real estate agent Laure Carafello-Hristov said homeowners being strangled by their property taxes come to her office in tears over the prospect of losing their homes. She predicted foreclosures would keep climbing.

"You haven't begun to see the disaster that is taking effect here in Palm Beach County," she said. "It's just so sad, because people are hearing the problem, but nothing is being done."

Touring the state, legislators have been greeted by big, angry crowds. At the first hearing in Panama City last month, 200 people were expected; 500 showed up.

After the Lake Worth hearing, legislators stopped in Broward County on Monday night.

"Let's be honest: The American dream is under assault," said Sen. Mike Haridopolos, R-Melbourne, chairman of the Finance and Tax Committee. "That's why we're here."

Some of the ideas being considered wouldn't help most in Monday's audience. They include Save Our Homes portability, which would allow people who already have homestead exemptions to take their tax breaks with them when they move. Another idea, championed by Gov. Charlie Crist, is to double the homestead exemption to $50,000.

An idea that would have an impact: capping tax increases for non-homesteaded properties, although some snowbirds said this solution wouldn't reverse the damage already done.

Dorothy Waxman, a retiree west of Boynton Beach, was the first person to speak Monday morning. Her story was echoed dozens of times: Her taxes shot from $1,900 to $6,000 since 2000 because she can't claim a homestead exemption.

"The system cannot work unless equal homes pay equal taxes," she said.

On display was "an awful lot of raw emotion," said Sen. Ted Deutch, D-Boca Raton, the hearing's moderator.

"You can't sit there for three hours and not have your stomach turned by some of the stories people describe," he said.