by Joe Shea
Manatee County Times
July 29, 2011
COMMISIONERS HIKE TAXES BUT SOME CAN'T QUITE ADMIT IT
BRADENTON, Fla., July 29, 2011 -- When is a tax increase not a tax increase? When the value of homes in Manatee County has fallen by billions of dollars and property taxes have already been slashed due to lower assessments, says Commissioner-At-Large Joe McClash, a man who owns more than a hundred rental homes.
"It is not a tax increase," McClash insisted at Friday's budget meeting where the county board of commissioners took the next-to-last step to agree to Manatee County Sheriff Brad Steube's request to raise property taxes to pay for 10 new patrol deputies and 10 corrections officers, plus a new evidence room and other costs.
The final vote on the higher law enforcement assessment and the overall budget will occur in October, but today's action is considered tantamount to ratification.
Twisted logic? Mixed fruit? McClash says Manatee County, in reducing assessments on countywide on housing stock after the sub-prime crisis, gave taxpayers a break.
That action, however, was taken not by the County Commission but by the County Assessor's office and the Tax Collector. They levy property taxes on the assessed value of county homes, which is largely based on the sales prices of nearby properties, minus homestead exemptions provided by Florida's Save Our Homes act and other tax-cutting measures.
The Sheriff's $95 million budget currently snorts up about 62 percent of the county's property tax revenues, and will consume a little more next year. The county commission merely ratifies the new tax levels by passing or defeating the county budget.
While the board cannot alter the assessed value of property, they can cut or raise the millage rate to support each element of it that they control - items such as public safety, roads and parks - to pay for requests like the Sheriff's.
But when, for instance, the value of a condominium for which a property owner paid $148,000 in cash falls to an assessed value of $56,000, and taxes fall in kind, has McClash and the county given homeowners a tax break by increasing taxes to cover the Sheriff's request? Not on this planet.
McClash especially enjoys the tax savings, he told the commissioners, because his own home has a market value that is $100,000 greater than its assessed value, he believes. Rather than ask for a re-assessment that would let him pay his fair share, the former air-conditioning entrepreneur has paid the lower taxes and enjoyed the tax cut.
The rest of the county's homeowners, though, have seen their market values fall dramatically as home sales and home prices continue a sharp decline. Home prices expected to decrease by another 5 to 8 percent next year, a budget official, Jim Seuffert, told the board.
Most of the other commissioners had less of a problem calling the tax increase what it is.
"You are increasing, you are increasing," said commission chair Carol Whitmore of Holmes Beach, who joined McClash, fellow Anna Maria island commissioner John Chappie, Bradenton commissioner Michael Gallen - the body's lone Democrat - and former Palmetto mayor Larry Bustle in supporting Bustle's motion to pass the tax hike.
Whitmore said she was troubled after meeting with county administrator Ed Hunzeker and a budget official from the sheriff's office Thursday and being told the money was available to raise the budget without new taxes.
"I want to know why it was there yesterday and not there today," she said, adding that her vote Friday did not commit her to passing the full budget measure later this year. Chappie echoed that sentiment, suggesting the 5-2 majority the Sheriff enjoyed today might become a 4-3 defeat a few months from now.
District 4 commissioner Robin DiSabatino, whose district is largely made up of suffering middle-class homeowners, she said, and District 5's Donna Hayes, who represents troubled but prosperous Lakewood Ranch and the eastern part of the county, voted against the increase.
Chappie and Gallen both said they supported the measure as a tax increase because public safety has demanded it. Hayes said the Sheriff's statement that crime had risen just 2 percent and that the county's crime rate had fallen from the fifth highest in Florida to the tenth-highest gave her optimism. Both she and DiSasbatino, a former real estate broker, have called for a referendum on the sheriff's proposal, but other commissioners note that couldn't take place until November 2012.
The crime most cited during the debate on the Sheriff's budget was the theft of air conditioners by drug addicts to sell the copper in them to support their drug habits.
"They're stealing more than they have ever stolen before," said McClash, whose rental properties - once cited as slums by the county - are in neighborhoods where such thefts are rampant.
In the end, as he almost always does, the Sheriff won a 7 percent increase from the current 3.934 mills (a mill is a tenth of a cent) per $1,000 of assessed value to 4.005. That's a tax increase of .071 mills, or about $7 on a $100,000 home. The overall new property tax rate inferred by the motion would be 7.3661 mills, a county official told The Manatee County Times, or $7.36 per $1,000 of assessed value.
Joe Shea is the government reporter for the Manatee County Times. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.