Fight intensifies over property tax amendment

City and county governments warn that if Amendment 4 passes next week, shuttered libraries, fired police officers and gutted social services will litter the public landscape.

It’s a grim scenario local officials say will result from the $1.7 billion in tax relief the amendment offers primarily to businesses, first-time homebuyers and second-homeowners.

“We’ve tightened our belt as far as we could tighten,” said Broward County Administrator Bertha Henry, spelling out $400 million in spending cuts the county has made to avoid raising taxes during the recession. “If Amendment 4 passes, we would have to raise taxes or we would have to cut services again.”

But since local officials are barred from political advertising, getting their warnings across to voters has been difficult. Many have resorted to passing resolutions at sparsely attended commission meetings.

Meanwhile, a $4-million “Yes on 4” campaign is being funded by the Florida Realtors, who have touted the amendment in mailers and flashy web ads.

The Realtors say the amendment will help revive the state’s weary housing market, create thousands of jobs and ensure that homeowners don’t see higher property tax bills when their home values fall.

Funded by dues money from the state’s 115,000 real estate agents and additional support from the National Association of Realtors, the Yes on 4 campaign is a well-funded operation with a catchy seven-word slogan for the complex 700-word amendment: “Tired of getting your assets taxed off?”

“It’s not a [tax] cut, it’s a cap on future increases,” said John Sebree, vice president of public policy for the Florida Realtors. Sebree said that local governments would actually benefit from more home sales and a larger number of people paying property taxes.

Advocacy groups for local governments are pitching a different message as they try to convince voters that most of Amendment 4’s tax relief will go to businesses, new homeowners and snowbirds — not permanent residents.

Though they are barred from using taxpayer money for political advertising, some local officials are beginning to use the bully pulpit to point out the potential consequences of Amendment 4.

Broward County officials have launched a website to point out the “hidden consequences of Amendment 4.” A flyer on the website says “Broward can’t afford Amendment 4,” and claims that its passage would force up to $41 million in cuts to an already lean budget. A 10-minute video entitled “No Free Lunch” indicates that the tax cuts could lead to deep service cuts to programs for the poor, elderly and children.

There’s also a “No on 4” campaign being funded by the Florida Association of Counties, an advocacy group for county governments.

Critics charge that flyers and ads from local governments run afoul of state law that prohibits taxpayer-funded political advertising.

“That’s our taxpayer money that they’re using to fight tax relief for us,” said Sebree.

Henry said the county is acting within the legal parameters to help educate voters and “fill in any gaps” created by the Realtors’ pro-Amendment 4 campaign.

“The state of the law today, allows us to educate, so we’re going to do that,” said Henry. “Could we do more if the law allowed? Absolutely. But right now, we’re going to work within the confines of the law.”

Cities like Oldsmar, Polk City and Coconut Creek have passed resolutions urging residents to vote against Amendment 4.

“Amendment 4 creates inequities for non-homesteaded properties by allowing identical properties to be taxed differently,” the resolution from Oldsmar reads.

The resolutions have been drafted by the Florida League of Cities, an advocacy group that has spoken out against the amendment.

To drive the message home, some local officials are warning of an outcome that might resonate with voters more than cuts to libraries or parks: Higher taxes.

If city and county officials can’t cut spending enough to make up for the revenue declines caused by the new tax cuts, they may need to raise tax rates to make up the difference.

“If we limit the growth in the tax roll, and we need additional revenue, then the tax rate has to increase,” said Jennifer Moon, budget administrator for Miami-Dade County.

Moon said permanent residents would have to shoulder the burden of the higher tax rates, while snowbirds and new homeowners would benefit from Amendment 4’s new tax provisions.

The initial impact on Miami-Dade County’s budget could be between $10 million and $15 million, Moon said.

Fitch Rating agency found that Amendment 4 would not impact the credit worthiness of most cities and counties, but its passage could lead to deep service cuts and tax hikes.

While business groups have come out in favor of the amendment, the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce decided to remain neutral after a lengthy debate of the pros and cons.

Local governments were present at the debate, but president Bob Rohrlack said they did not play an active role in the debate.

In Miami-Dade County, where property taxes are a particularly thorny political issue, Commissioner Dennis Moss stopped short of weighing in on Amendment 4 at a recent commission meeting.

“Vote,” he said. “And vote wisely.”