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Tallahassee Democrat: Lowering property taxes comes with price for counties

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Nothing comes without a price. This certainly holds true for state mandates on Florida property taxes. It’s no news that the people of Florida are struggling or that the housing market is far from recovered. But, Florida’s many local governments are feeling the strain as well, and cuts in property tax revenues aren’t helping the situation.

According to the LeRoy Collins Institute’s most recent report, “The Double Whammy Facing Florida’s Counties,” county governments are having a very difficult time handling state mandates coupled with the down economy.

In the past two years, county revenues have fallen on average more than $100 per resident — by far the largest reduction in over three decades. Losses in county revenue generally translate to cuts to local services.

The Double Whammy analyzes Florida county spending and revenue trends overs the last 33 years. The report finds that until 2008, Florida’s counties were able to handle economic downturns and the effects of state mandates because revenue trends continued to climb.

However, as the report shows, on average county revenues fell by $60 per capita in 2008 and then again by $53 per capita in 2009. The data do not cover 2010, but there has been little good news on the economic front and little reason to expect an upturn in revenues.

The Double Whammy highlights several additional county spending and revenue trends:

• Per capita public safety increases have far outpaced the growth of other county expenditures in the past two decades. However, in the past year public safety spending fell slightly, from $442 per capita in 2008 to $440 in 2009.

• Road and street spending has fallen noticeably in the past two years — from $250 per capita in 2007 to $194 in 2009.

According to our report, the property tax is the most relied-upon source for revenues in Florida’s counties, representing 55 percent of the average county’s revenue in 2009. When Amendment 1 to the state constitution was approved by voters in 2008, this doubled the homestead exemption, and no surprise — constrained county revenues.

Looking into the future, state legislators have put Amendment 4 on the November 2012 ballot to again lower property tax levies that make up the majority of local governments’ revenue.

This amendment would extend the Save Our Homes-style caps on non-residential tax assessments and reduce property taxes for those buying a house for the first time.

While these may be appealing tax cuts for citizens and for state legislators taking credit for taxes they don’t collect, the effect on counties may be more of a fiscal piling-on. County officials are in for a bumpy ride if the last three years haven’t done enough damage.

— Author Carol Weissert is director of the LeRoy Collins Institute and professor of political science at Florida State University. She can be reached at or (850) 645-2940 or 644-1441. The Institute’s newest research series, “Tough Choices: Facing Florida’s Governments,” is made possible by funding from the Jessie Ball duPont fund and is focused on state and local government relationships. “The Double Whammy” is the third report released in this series and the full report can be found at

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