State Legislators Hear From Constituents on Tax Reform
by Carl Wagenfohr
CLEARWATER - In advance of this week's Special Legislative Session on tax reform, Clearwater-area legislators conducted a series of Town Hall meetings last week to hear from their constituents.
On June 6th, Representative Ed Hooper drew a crowd of about 100 to his session at the Clearwater East library. Included in the audience were the entire Clearwater City Council.
Hooper said that he heard a consistent request from voters during his election campaign last year; "Please fix my property insurance. Please fix my property tax." While the legislature did act on the insurance issue last year, Hooper said, "I don't know if we did good or bad." The legislature failed to act on tax reform in its regular session, prompting the special session this week.
"Property tax may be the most defining vote I will ever make as a member of the Florida legislature. We're either going to do something to fix an unfair inequitable problem, or we're going to make it worse. And I hope we're going to do the former and not the latter," Hooper said.
He described "Save Our Homes" as a well-intended initiative fraught with unintended consequences. "Back in 1996," he said, "this state had $89.5-billion off the tax rolls because of the homestead exemption, and $3.5-billion off the tax rolls because of Save Our Homes. Fast-forward to 2006, and that $89.5-billion of homestead exemptions has increased to $101-billion, not a huge increase if you think about 10 years of growth."
"But Save Our Homes over that same 10 year time frame has grown from $3.5-billion to over $404-billion," Hooper said, explaining that it has not only caused a tax inequity, but caused Florida's economy to flatten as well. "There are more people moving out of this state every day than moving in," Hooper said.
"All of us are going to have some pain. Nobody is going to come out of this feeling as good as they do today," Hooper said of the tax reform process. But none of those in the audience seemed to be feeling very well that day.
Having defined Save Our Homes as a culprit of Florida's inequitable property tax structure, Hooper then listened to citizen arguments both to keep and eliminate it, long-term homesteaded property owners wanting to preserve the protection that Save Our Homes provides, and non-homesteaded property owners wanting to reform or eliminate it.
Alex Choco, a retired schoolteacher, explained that he purchased several condemned properties in Largo and Dunedin, refurbished them with his own hands and rented them for use as childcare centers. Choco claimed that his tax bills grew from about $600 per year to $15,500 in 2006, forcing him to borrow money to fund the payments. He said that if the rents were raised, the centers would close.
The properties were originally purchased to supplement his retirement income, but their tax liability has become a drain; "I can no longer subsidize child care centers with my retirement and social security," Choco said.
Bill Jonson, a former Clearwater Councilmember, both benefits and suffers from Save Our Homes. He explained that taxes on his home have risen only 11-percent in the last five years, while taxes on his non-homesteaded rental townhouse have increased 78-percent over the same period. He suggested targeting Save Our Homes to long-term residents whose property value has increased dramatically because of market conditions, while at the same time trying to address the tax inequity between homesteaded and non-homesteaded properties.
"But I'm really concerned about the process," Jonson added. He worried that state legislators were not being provided with the specifics of proposals being negotiated by House and Senate leadership, and that they would be asked to "slam something together in a week."
Jonson's comments were prophetic. Hooper, Rep. Janet Long, who joined him later in the meeting, and Rep. Peter Nehr, who held a meeting in Tarpon Springs the following night, all told their constituents that the "Highest and Best Use" method of property appraisal would be fixed by the Special Session, ending an inequity that was driving small motels and working waterfronts out of business in favor of condo development.
But last Friday, just days after the promises uttered by local Representatives, the proposal released by House and Senate leadership failed to include any reform of "Highest and Best Use". The proverbial rug had been pulled from under Hooper, Long and Nehr's feet by their leaders.
Closing the June 6th meeting, Hooper observed that six of Pinellas County's State Representatives are freshmen, as are 50-percent of its Senators. "The great thing about being a freshman is that you are a free agent. You have not sold your soul to the leadership; none of us are committee chairmen. We can vote our conscience and what our constituents tell us is important to them. I think that's a plus."
Return to Home Page
Return to Current Edition