Tough Times For Locals

Florida lawmakers make deep cuts in the property tax and leave it to voters to OK even deeper cuts.
by | September 2007

Florida Governor Charlie Crist is making good on his pledge to force property taxes to "drop like a rock." But as cities and counties write their 2008 budgets this month, what's dropping feels more like a meat ax.

Localities across Florida are cutting positions and rolling back services in response to the property-tax cut, which the legislature passed in June. Most say they can manage Tallahassee's order, which lopped as much as 9 percent off local revenues. But if Florida voters pass part two of the package next January, cities and counties would face such deep deficits that some may have to re-think what local government does.

For now, service cutbacks are being felt hardest in quality-of-life programs, such as recreation and libraries. But in some places, cutbacks are hitting public safety and economic development. The Broward County sheriff may ditch a special drunk-driving unit and a boot camp program for nonviolent criminals. And St. Lucie County, which has embraced Florida's bold strategy of developing a biotech industry, can't find local money to match state funds for luring research institutions.

Because of a quirk in how the state law works, some localities are feeling less pinched than others. Places that had recently rolled back property taxes on their own get some reprieve, as do ones that are developing rapidly. For example, Lake County, a fast-growing bedroom community west of Orlando, saw its revenues trimmed by only 2 percent.

But a more typical situation is that of the city of Clearwater, which lost 7 percent of its revenues, or about $6 million. Clearwater is looking at cutting about 60 full-time jobs, in addition to slashing funds for a beach transit system known as the "Jolley Trolley" and for the Florida Orchestra. "There's nothing pleasurable or comfortable about it," says City Manager Bill Horne. "You've got employees and partners in the community who could be impacted. But you have to do it."

While local officials recognize that many Floridians want and need some tax relief, they complain about Tallahassee crafting what they see as a one-size-fits-all solution to a local tax problem. Westin Mayor Eric Hersh is suing the state to overturn the first part of the tax-cut law--the one forcing localities to cut their budgets now. He also hopes to get the second part, which would give some homeowners a "super" homestead exemption, knocked off the January ballot.

In Jacksonville, which already enjoys the lowest tax rate among large Florida cities, Mayor John Peyton, a conservative businessman, is proposing to fill a $65 million hole in his budget in part by assessing new fees for garbage collection, storm-water treatment and utilities usage.

Peyton says the fees will diversify Jacksonville's revenue base and help insulate it from the political winds in the capital. "This current policy change cost us $65 million," Peyton says. "The second punch would cost us $100 million-plus. It would be devastating."