Florida Towns May Feel Homeowners' Tax Pains Years of rising home values have brought local governments buckets of property tax money. But now, in Florida and other states, taxpayers are saying "enough." Florida's legislature is expected to roll back property taxes next month — imposing big cuts on cities and counties. Local officials say the rollback may force police and firefighter layoffs.
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Florida Towns May Feel Homeowners' Tax Pains

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Florida Towns May Feel Homeowners' Tax Pains

Florida Towns May Feel Homeowners' Tax Pains

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

A full-fledged tax revolt is under way in Florida. While housing prices have stagnated or fallen a bit, property taxes are still rising. A number of states, including New Jersey, Montana and Arizona are working on ways to cap them or roll them back. But in Florida, the issue is so hot the governor has called a special session of the legislature.

Here's NPR's Greg Allen.

GREG ALLEN: It's dinner time at the Lynguent(ph) house in West Palm Beach and strained-green beans were on the menu.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ALLEN: Six-month-old Luke(ph) is the reason Mary and John Lynguent(ph) sold their old two-bedroom home and bought a roomier house in Parker Ridge, a working class neighborhood in West Palm Beach. After moving into this modest neighborhood, John Lynguent says he was shocked when his taxes more than tripled.

Mr. JOHN LYNGUENT (Resident, West Palm Beach): And I anticipated the taxes going up a bit, but not from - let's see, we are paying $2,274 in taxes last year in the old house, but went up to $7,519.

ALLEN: It's a painful reality of owning a home in South Florida. The weather is nice. The beach is close by. But inflated home prices, the high cost of insurance and rising property taxes are forcing many middle class people to consider leaving the area. The Lynguent say they've discussed moving, but they have family nearby and they both like their jobs. John's an urban planner and Mary's an environmental consultant. The experience has turned John into something of a political activist. He's joined a local anti-tax group and says there's a simple explanation for why property taxes are so high.

Mr. LYNGUENT: The problem is West Palm Beach, Lake Worth, all the other cities had this huge increase in revenue just coming in. And they haven't had to manage the budget - really looking at it tightly. They haven't had to do that. They've been able to spend at will.

ALLEN: Last year for example, West Palm Beach collected an additional $13 million in taxes, which, says John Lynguent, bags a question.

Mr. LYNGUENT: But where's all the money going? I just embattled by it.

ALLEN: That's the question that's being asked over and over in Florida by angry taxpayers and their representatives in Tallahassee. Florida's Republican Governor Charlie Crist has vowed to bring property taxes down, quote, "like a rock". And he's called a special session of the legislature. The details are still being worked out, but one thing is all but certain: taxes will be cut by 10 percent or more, and it's counties and municipalities like West Palm Beach that will take the hit.

West Palm Beach Mayor Lois Frankel has been holding community meetings, letting out the projected impact of the coming cuts, and she's not sugar-coating it.

Mayor LOIS FRANKEL (West Palm Beach, Florida): In our city, most of the majority of our budget goes to four areas: police, fire, parks and public works. So when you start to cut into a budget 20 percent, you have a serious reduction of services in those areas.

ALLEN: Frankel has warned residents the city maybe forced to close some fire stations and recreation centers, also, layoff dozens of police and firefighters. Crist calls the warnings coming from West Palm Beach and other cities and counties in Florida scare tactics.

Governor CHARLIE CRIST (Republican, Florida): They will see their money cut. They will see the people's money go back to the people. And what I'm concerned about is that when they put these things out that they're going to fire a law enforcement officer, they're going to fire firefighters? For them to say that is just wrong. I don't want our people to worry and for them to make them worry? That's wrong because that's not going to happen.

Mayor FRANKEL: With all due respect for the governor, it's just not true.

ALLEN: As for the question of where the money has gone, Frankel says much of it went to personnel. West Palm Beach hired 27 new police department employees last year alone. And the city has had the budget for higher pension and healthcare costs. Many of Frankel's arguments coincide with talking points circulated by the Florida Association of Counties. She concedes that property taxes are too high for some people, but says the real problem is one of fairness. Because of a Homestead Exception law in Florida, new house fires are taxed at rates four and five times higher than long-time homeowners. But Frankel says 18 years experience in state and local government has taught her that when services are cut, no one is happy.

Mayor FRANKEL: People want more at us local government, they're not asking for less. People want more police, they want more firefighters, they want more trees, they want more parks. You know, they going to have to get used to hearing the word no more and then, you know, maybe things will swing back the other way.

ALLEN: It's a thorny problem. How to answer cries for lower taxes without cutting into gold-platted services residence have grown to expect from city and county governments. Making it even thornier is that Governor Crist says he won't approve any cuts in education funding. And in Florida, as elsewhere, that's where the largest share of property tax revenue goes - to the schools.

Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.

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