Posted from the Miami Herald
Saturday, June 23, 2007
2 cities avoid state-mandated tax cuts
Opa-Locka and Miami Gardens' governments are rejoicing after being saved from state-mandated tax cuts.
BY ROBERT SAMUELS
The state's big tax reform package, a sweeping plan to stiffen spending in local governments, will have a relatively small impact in Opa-Locka and Miami Gardens. The two were shielded from slashing their budgets after qualifying under two special exemptions.
Miami Gardens, the third-largest city in Miami-Dade, was exempted entirely from the mandated property tax cuts, calculated through a complicated formula based on five years of financial performance. The Legislature concluded that the four-year-old city was too young to face big cuts.
''I'm ecstatic at the decision,'' said Mayor Shirley Gibson, who led the city's council trip to Tallahassee in April to ask for special consideration. ``We have started a lot of great programs and didn't want to have to cut back on them.''
Meanwhile, Opa-Locka was told to cut its taxes three percent, three times less than most municipalities and the smallest cut in the Miami-Dade County.
The Legislature concluded the city was not financially stable enough to endure a cut, particularly since the city is recovering from a recent financial emergency.
''The state's consideration is really much appreciated,'' said Vice Mayor Dorothy ''Dottie'' Johnson. ``We've lost so many years of progress in this city in the past, and it's a blessing that we're not forced to lose any more.''
Property tax reform was the major subject of this year's legislative session, with representatives from both parties scrambling to create tax solutions after Gov. Charlie Crist declared that Floridians needed smaller financial burdens.
As the Legislature debated, city governments shivered while awaiting a decision.
Kelley asked the city commission to consider holding off major projects until a decision was made. Miami Gardens City Manager Danny Crew warned his boss that the reform was the ``most serious thing he's seen in his 35 years.'' They warned of park closings, decreased sanitation services and staff reductions.
Betty Webb, a retired nurse in Miami Gardens, said she understood those concerns but still would have liked some form of property tax cut.
''I paid $8,000 in homeowners insurance and even more in property taxes,'' said Webb, who owns a five-bedroom home. ``I could use some relief. We all could.''
In this sense, Webb is envious of residents in Opa-Locka, who will see their property taxes return to 2006 levels. Residents there are subject to the highest millage rate, which last year was $9.80 for every $1,000 of taxable property.
The entire debate reminded Kelley that the city needs to watch its wallet and search for as many grant and relief opportunities for residents as possible.
''This cut is not going to be as devastating,'' Kelley said. ``But it's still a cut.''
And more cuts might be coming after the January election.
If 60 percent of voters approve it, homeowners will get to choose one of two options: keep their current tax scheme, which stops taxes from rising more than three percent each year under the Save Our Homes act. Or pay $50,000 worth of property taxes for the first $200,000 of their home value, and 15 percent of the next $300,000 worth.
Said Crew: ``It's not over yet.''