By Tim Pallesen
County and municipal officials are warning voters to brace for higher property taxes if they approve tax breaks for homes that don’t have tax exemptions now.
Amendment Four on the Nov. 6 ballot would give property tax exemptions to snowbirds, first-time home buyers and owners of rental property.
Coastal communities are most concerned about the reduction in tax revenue from their many winter homes.
County government would lose $80 million over four years if voters approve the amendment to the state constitution.
“I think the Board of County Commissioners would end up raising the tax rate on all property owners to make up for the shortfall,” County Administrator Bob Weisman said.
Coastal communities don’t know potential losses yet. But the League of Cities, which is urging voters to reject Amendment Four, says all towns would have to cut services or raise taxes.
“Just when the housing market looks like it is stabilizing, we have these exemptions. It could be the death knell,” said Richard Radcliffe, executive director of the Palm Beach County League of Cities.
Amendment Four was intended to boost Florida ’s lagging real-estate sales when legislators put it on the ballot in 2011 as an incentive for first-time home buyers. Sales have picked up since then.
Local governments have been cutting their budgets since the economic downturn caused a drop in property values and tax revenues three years ago. They say they can’t cut anymore.
“We’ve cut, cut, cut for three years. We don’t have any other place to cut except personnel,” Ocean Ridge Town Manager Ken Schenck said.
“Everyone is running on fumes,” Radcliffe said. “How do they expect us to keep pace?”
Snowbirds who own primary residences up north account for 40 percent of Ocean Ridge’s residential properties.
“Tax breaks for non-homesteaded residents have the potential for a good-sized effect on our income,” Schenck said. “If they cut our income, the only option would be to raise the millage.”
More than half of the homes in Gulf Stream are owned by snowbirds who would qualify for the new exemption to save taxes.
“We would lose several hundred thousand dollars over four years,” Town Manager Bill Thrasher estimated. “Homeowners who are homesteaded now would be required to shore up that shortfall.”
Water rates would have to be increased to compensate for lost revenue in Briny Breezes, where snowbirds own the majority of homes, Mayor Roger Bennett said. “We don’t want to do that,” Bennett said.
Amendment Four would take $1.2 billion over three years statewide from Florida counties and cities if voters approve it.
The exemptions would be a shift from past years when tax breaks favored year-round Florida residents.
The Save Our Homes amendment in 1992 granted homestead exemptions to protect long-time homeowners who were being taxed out of their homes because of increasing home values.
Now, the tax burden would shift back to those owners of homesteaded property, county and city officials agree.
“Tax exemptions historically had impact on long-term residents,” Weisman said. “These new exemptions say forget about those people.”
Florida Realtors, the group behind Amendment Four, has spent $3 million in a campaign to get the referendum passed.
John Sebree, the group’s president, counters that the new exemptions would “smooth out our system and make it more fair” while boosting the economy.
For information on all the amendments on the November 6 ballot, go to www.thefloridavoter.org