Mayoral Candidates Oppose Amendment 1, Differ on How to Deal With Its Passage
by Carl Wagenfohr
CLEARWATER - Clearwater's voters will have a lot to decide on January 29th. While the presidential primary occupies the national headlines, the city's voters will determine the fate of several referenda that would amend the city charter, and will elect the city's next mayor.
But perhaps the most important issue on the ballot is the statewide referendum on property tax reform, Amendment 1. The measure, whose passage requires approval by 60-percent of Florida's voters on January 29th, promises to reduce property taxes statewide by providing an additional $25-thousand exemption for homesteaded properties, a $25-thousand exemption for business equipment, and portability of the "Save Our Homes" assessment cap.
While the passage of Amendment 1 is estimated to save the average Clearwater homeowner about $240 per year in property taxes, Tina Wilson, Clearwater's Budget Director, has projected that the city's tax revenues would be cut by about $2.7-million.
Earlier this week, the Gazette asked Clearwater's mayoral candidates, current Mayor Frank Hibbard and former mayor Rita Garvey, for their positions on Amendment 1 and how they would deal with its passage if elected.
Both Hibbard and Garvey oppose Amendment 1. Hibbard said, "I don't think the referendum addresses the real underlying issues," and cited inequities in taxation between homesteaded and non-homesteaded properties as an example. He also said that the amendment doesn't address the issue of taxing properties at a value based in highest and best use.
"It gives additional relief to the people who have Save Our Homes, who have been impacted the least, and really all it does is widen the gap between those who have that protection and those who don't," Hibbard said. Hibbard said that the portability of the Save Our Homes cap is the only positive component of Amendment 1.
"I will be voting against it," he said, "My position is I'm against it because I don't think it cures all of our problems." Hibbard thinks that the state legislature will produce a better solution if Amendment 1 fails at the polls; "I think this first iteration is not all it could be," he said.
While Hibbard attacked Amendment 1's provisions, Garvey's opposition took the form of a home rule issue. "I hope it doesn't pass, because I think it's a bad effort to try to solve a problem that needs to be solved at the local level, not the state level," she said; "If the State of Florida depended on property tax, then I'd say they had a right to say something. But I think they'd better clean up their own problems before they start worrying about local government."
Garvey thinks that the State Budget and Taxation Committee should be given an opportunity to study the issues and publish their report before decisions are made by the legislature, whose action on Amendment 1 she labeled "not rational". Garvey's message to citizens is, "Local government can in fact control the budget process and control the taxation; let us have the chance to do it."
Should Amendment 1 pass, Garvey would start the budget-cutting process by examining every city department. "I don't think we can just categorically cut 10-percent out of the budget. I'd like to see what kind of programs are in these departments that we really don't need," she said.
Landscaping is an area Garvey would make cuts. "I'm a strong advocate of open space and parks, but I'm not an advocate of landscaped parks," she said. Garvey complained of the high cost of maintaining some of Clearwater's lush foliage, citing the topiaries at Crest Lake Park and Causeway landscaping as examples; "How many times do we have to redo the causeway," she asked.
But her scrutiny would not be limited to quality of life departments. Asked how she would cut $2.7-million from the city's budget, Garvey answered, "Until I actually spend some time with staff and going through each department, I really can't say off the top of my head. But we really do need to look at the police and fire too. No one ever wants to cut public safety, but they have grown significantly and we need to make sure that we're addressing the critical needs of our community. Are there police and fire programs that are really out there serving the people? I don't know."
Garvey added that she would ask the City Manager to propose cuts; "City Manager, you come back and tell us where you would like to cut, and then we as elected officials would say yea or nay," Garvey said.
Hibbard's approach to cutting $2.7-million from the city's budget differs from Garvey's. "What I've said all along is we've got to go through that public process again," he said, referring to the City Council's approach to making state-imposed budget cuts in 2007. "We had a list," Hibbard said of staff-proposed 2007 cuts, "we added some things back this year, and we're going to have to revisit that list."
"It's going to have to be a public process because my greatest concern is that we make certain that the cuts are equitable. What I hear consistently from citizens is they don't want to jeopardize public safety, nor do I. That limits what you can look at," Hibbard said.
Libraries, Parks and Recreation and Public Works are areas that Hibbard would look to for cuts. "That can mean reduction in hours, reduction in employees and, potentially, a reduction in facilities," Hibbard said.
"I think this budget process going forward is going to have to be like the visioning process, but focusing strictly on budget," Hibbard said; "We're going to have to have town hall meetings for two reasons: First, we need to have citizens work on prioritizing what's important to them. Secondly, we need to continue to communicate what money is spent on and how."
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