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Date of Issue: March 08, 2007

Barford: tax proposal is 'knee-jerk' reaction

Anna Maria Mayor Fran Barford wasted few words in expressing her displeasure with a proposal in the Florida Legislature to place a cap on a municipality's annual spending, calling the measure a "knee-jerk reaction" to the state's tax problem and not a viable, long-term solution.

If passed, said the mayor, "Anna Maria would take a huge hit, as would the county. The trickle down effect to our city would be sizeable."

Under the proposal, municipal and county governments in Florida would be limited in the percentage of increase in spending from one fiscal year to the next.

Manatee County officials have already estimated they would lose $85 million in revenue under the proposal. Barford did not yet know how much of that would be lost to the city.

What irritates the mayor, however, is not the attempt to solve the problem, but how quickly state legislators are moving to put something in place to satisfy the public outcry for tax reform.

"They're not thinking long and hard about the effects of this law," she said. The real issue is not spending, but the state-regulated property appraisal system that allows "mom-and-pop" motels, apartments and businesses on the Island to be appraised as condominiums, thus raising the taxes on those properties to outrageous levels.

While cutting how much a city's budget can increase in a single year sounds good as a "quick-fix" to the tax problem, she noted that these "knee-jerk" reactions always come back to haunt the same people who passed the measure. When the "Save our Homes" law was passed in the 1990s, limiting the homesteaded property assessment to only 3 percent per year, few legislators gave thought to the future. The same holds true for the Florida high-speed rail initiative, the maximum size of a classroom referendum and other similar measures.

"Nobody gives enough thought to where the money is going to come from," she said.

"We need more information," she added. At this point, no one in Tallahassee seems to know if any sales tax increase would be enough to replace ad valorem taxes and allow municipal governments to function at an acceptable level of service.

And, she noted, Anna Maria would be hard hit if a sales tax increase were to replace property taxes.

"Sales tax disbursements are based on population, and ours isn't going up. We would be on the short end of the stick every year," she observed.

Barford was working with city treasurer Diane Percycoe to put together some figures on what services and spending would have to be cut or eliminated in the city if the legislature approves the proposal to limit spending increases.

"And make no mistake. We would have to cut or eliminate something if this proposal passes," she said.

The first public service to be hit would likely be law enforcement. The city has an annual contract with the Manatee County Sheriff's Office that is $615,000 for the 2006-07 fiscal year, about 23 percent of the city's total budget. That total calls for seven officers and the contract allows for at least one MCSO deputy on duty at all times in the city.

The Florida Legislature was scheduled to convene on March 6 and Barford is convinced the proposed cap will be among the first bills discussed by both the house and senate.

She said she along with Holmes Beach Mayor Rich Bohnenberger and Bradenton Beach Mayor John Chappie were discussing the possibility of sending a delegation to Tallahassee to present the combined views of the Island's elected officials. State Sen. Mike Bennett has already been informed of the Island cities position on the cap proposal, she said.

Commission Chairman John Quam said commissioners would discuss a response to the spending cap proposal at their March 5 initial budget workshop.