While Florida lawmakers think they passed revolutionary property tax reform, what they might have done is put a property tax revolt into high gear.
Throughout the state, grass-roots groups and elected county property appraisers are girding for war. They are adamant about bypassing the Legislature and putting their own reforms before voters through petitions.
The factions seeking do-it-yourself reform include:
Son of Save Our Homes
Maybe you thought lawmakers solved the problem of the lack of portability of Save Our Homes tax rates, much-cherished by longtime Florida homeowners.
True, the Legislature will give voters the option in January — at the same time as the presidential primary — to approve a constitutional amendment that would give voters the choice of tapping a new super homestead plan, which protects as much as $195,000 of a home’s value from taxes, or sticking with Save Our Homes.
But the same vote also will basically serve to phase out Save Our Homes, which has capped property tax increases for homeowners at 3 percent a year.
Ken Wilkinson, the father of that original amendment and the property appraiser for Lee County, thinks he has an improved solution.
The biggest problem with the original plan is that when someone moves, he or she cannot take the low tax rate to a new Florida home, Wilkinson maintains.
Now he heads a statewide group called Save Our Homes Portability Inc., which is gearing up to supplant the old Save Our Home with a twist that lets homesteaders move around within the state without giving up all their tax credits.
It took six years to put the original law into place as a constitutional amendment in 1992, but Wilkinson thinks his new amendment could happen a lot faster, thanks mainly to the Internet.
“I feel that with the Internet, which we didn’t have when we did Save Our Homes, that we are in a much stronger position,” Wilkinson said. “I just sent out another 10,000 letters today, using private funding. That will make 100,000 letters we have sent out in the last two months.”
His group, which includes 15 elected property appraisers on its executive committee, plans to continue to gather the 611,000 signatures from all over Florida needed to force the amendment onto the ballot.
“Save Our Homes Portability” would allow homesteaders to “bring forward” up to 50 percent of the difference between the assessed value and the market value of their home when downsizing and subtract it from the market value of their new home. When “up-sizing,” homesteaders would be able to protect up to $400,000 in property value from taxation.
“It will have the same enemies that Save Our Homes had,” Wilkinson said.
For the new proposal, the wild card is the Legislature’s January referendum. If 60 percent of voters say yes to it, Wilkinson’s initiative will die on the vine. But if the voters reject the super exemption, Wilkinson’s portability amendment goes into overdrive.
Among those most unimpressed with the Legislature’s efforts are the so-called snowbirds, those from northern climes who own property in sunny Florida that they use part of the year and sometimes rent out for extra income.
“We’ve got people paying 26 percent to 27 percent more than they did two years earlier, and they just can’t afford it,” said Gary Brissenden, president of the Toronto-based Canadian Snowbirds Association. “It is absolutely ridiculous.”
His group has about 80,000 members, and Brissenden estimates that half are Florida property owners.
Some of those Canadians are already voting with their feet.
“A lot of them are saying they are selling,” Brissenden said.
At Colony Cove in Ellenton, there were 150 homes owned by Canadians a few years ago. “They are just about all sold now,” he said. “If they are not sold, they are for sale.”
Brissenden acknowledges there is not much his group’s members can do about the Florida tax picture because most of them are not U.S. citizens.
Not so for Homeowners Against Runaway Taxes, headed by Winnie Nelon, a Massachusetts snowbird.
“Nothing has changed to cause snowbirds to want to retire in Florida,” Nelon said of the Legislature’s proposals.
Her organization is gearing up for a multipronged approach to resolve the problem that, in their view, lawmakers failed to solve.
The second prong will be to create a “Florida Taxpayers Bill of Rights.”
“We also strongly encourage those who want legal solutions to pursue that battle,” Nelon said. “The idea being that taxing people from different states differently is unconstitutional.”
Though it was Nelon and other snowbird organizations who started the tax revolt two years ago, they were forgotten by the time legislators reached their ultimate solution.
The reason is that the Florida Association of Counties and unions representing government employees were successful in raising the fear among Florida residents that basic services would be cut if taxes were rolled back any further.
Business owners unite
Snowbirds paying sky-high taxes and homeowners who feel trapped in their homes are not the only groups that feel oppressed. Businesses are hurting too, and none more than those on Southwest Florida’s barrier islands. Their main problem is that property appraisers are choosing to use their priciest method of valuing their properties, called “highest and best use.”
Barry Gould runs resort condo complexes on the islands, not the kind of guy you would think of as a tax activist. Yet he has gotten involved in two anti-tax groups: the Florida TaxPayers Alliance and Coalition Against Runaway Taxes.
“If you have a small mom-and-pop motel on the beach that has been there 40 years, they are taxed based on tearing it down and building luxury condominiums,” said Gould, whose Bradenton company is called Island Vacation Properties. “I really feel there is an issue here of taxation without representation.”
“It is the hotels and motels and restaurants forced out of business that are going to impact tourism, which is our No. 1 industry,” he said. “I think the Legislature has as much responsibility to maintain the health of the No. 1 industry as they do the health of the voter.”
His interests coincide with those of nonresort landlords.
“We need to get landlord associations across Florida together and hammer out a coalition with Realtors, builders and other business people,” said Al Holmes, president of the Sarasota Landlords Association. “We need to keep beating the drum until we get real tax reform.”
The bubbling up
Even more than these disparate factions, there is something bigger bubbling up in Florida.
The Legislature’s summer session seems to have energized quite a few ordinary citizens into spending more of their valuable time on future tax reforms.
Tom Gaitens lives in Apollo Beach and works in Sarasota as a commodities trader, but he took a couple of days off this week just to attend a Washington, D.C., workshop on how to fashion tax reform initiatives, sponsored by FreedomWorks.org.
“None of these people do this full-time,” said Gaitens, who was holed up Friday in a hotel room.
He said FreedomWorks is a grass-roots political advocacy organization specializing in lower taxes, less government and more freedom.
He is working not just with McKalip and his group, but also with 20 or so Florida other groups pushing for more tax reform than the Legislature provided. Gaitens put together a news release this week that 12 of those groups agreed to sign, pushing that same Florida Taxpayer Bill of Rights advocated by Nelon’s snowbird group.
“Florida grassroots citizen groups express outrage at proposed compromise tax legislation – call for a taxpayer bill of rights,” reads Gaitens’ headline. The release urges voters to oppose the proposed Super Homestead amendment coming to referendum in January.
Instead, the groups are promising their own amendment, which would roll back local budgets to their 2000-01 level and put a 3 percent per year cap on government expenditures and on revenues, from then on.
School funding would be exempt, and any surplus revenue would be returned to taxpayers.
Right now, the bill of rights is just one of a whole list of potential amendments that are floating around in Florida, Gaitens said.
“There is too much to even put your arms around,” he said. “There is a great redundancy of effort. It is important for us to try to simplify and singularize our message.”