Special districts nibble at taxpayers

COURTESY : St. Petersburg Times
By STEVE Bousquet
Published February 10, 2007

Which local government has been raising your property taxes the fastest?

Is it the county? City? School board?

Guess again. The answer is those overlooked but important creatures known as special taxing districts.

They are local governments created by the Legislature that have very specific missions that may matter to you: Health care for kids, mass transit, water quality, mosquito and fire control.

Many of them collect only user fees or assessments. But more than 200 of them collect property taxes, and they are largely ignored by the public and the media.

Statewide, their collective tax take has increased 136 percent since 2001, according to the governor's office. It's true that they typically tax at a much lower rate than cities or counties, which is why you probably don't notice them in the fine print on your annual tax bill.

But a trend is a trend is a trend.

Cities are next at 118 percent, followed by counties at 97 percent and schools at 89 percent.

During the same six-year period, personal income in Florida grew by 40 percent, according to statistics the governor's office is showing legislators.

The Property Tax Reform Committee created by Jeb Bush when he was governor had slightly different figures for 2000-2006, but the overall result was the same: District taxes have grown the most.

Speaking of trends, taxing districts are multiplying in this state.

Florida has 1,494 special taxing districts.

Hillsborough County has 129, more than any other county.

A few examples include the Children's Board of Hillsborough County, the Hillsborough Transit Authority and the Tampa Palms Community Development District.

Miami-Dade is second with 91. Pinellas has 41, Pasco 54 and Hernando 19.

"Do they ever go away?" asked Rep. Julio Robaina, a Miami Republican who chairs the House Committee on Urban and Local Affairs.

(Answer: Yes. Occasionally).

But here's the fascinating part: In seeking to double Florida's homestead exemption to $50,000, Gov. Charlie Crist wants to exempt water management districts and dependent special districts, those districts governed by elected county or city commissioners.

Rep. Ron Saunders, a Key West Democrat, wondered why the property taxers with "the highest growth rate" wouldn't be made to do with a little less, like counties and cities.

Rep. Kevin Ambler, R-Lutz, said it would be wrongheaded for the state to protect special taxing districts from a tax cut others must endure.

"We don't want to encourage more special districts," Ambler said.

A former Republican state legislator, Stan Bainter, wrote an article for Florida TaxWatch saying that there needs to be more public attention paid to these districts.

In a year in which property taxes is front and center as the state's dominant political issue, it's a good bet that will happen.

"Our legislators need to know exactly what they have created," wrote Bainter, who voted to create more than a few of them when he was in the House.