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Save Our Homes ... again

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  • | 6:00 p.m. March 9, 2007
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Save Our Homes ... again

Tax reform by Jean Gruss | Editor/Lee-Collier

Lee County Property Appraiser Ken Wilkinson, the father of the 'Save Our Homes' amendment, says he's in favor of a proposal to eliminate property taxes for homesteaded properties. But less radical reform is the more likely outcome, he concedes.

Ken Wilkinson is fond of saying that no good deed goes unpunished.

The Lee County Property Appraiser is booed at public meetings as he defends the "Save Our Homes" amendment he championed 15 years ago that caps homesteaded residential property assessments.

Meanwhile, the current Florida legislative session seems to be moving ahead with property tax reform even as Wilkinson proposes to alter the amendment he fathered in 1992 by making it portable.

The "Save Our Homes" amendment limits homesteaded property assessments to annual increases of 3% or the rate of inflation, whichever is less. It was approved by voters in 1992 and was designed to keep residents' property taxes from spiraling upwards when values surged, as they have in recent years.

But the amendment has now made it difficult for residents to sell their homes and buy another because they face a substantial tax hike as homesteaded properties are reassessed at market value when they're bought. Wilkinson also now faces the wrath of business owners and second-home owners who blame him for what they believe is the additional tax burden shifted onto them.

Wilkinson agrees property taxes are high, but not because of Save Our Homes. While property values have increased, he points out that local governments haven't reduced tax rates even as their coffers have bulged from those surging property values. "Lee County taxes went up 39% last year," Wilkinson says.

All of this has spawned a slew of tax-reform proposals that are making their way through various legislative committees. What's more, Gov. Charlie Crist appointed Wilkinson to the Taxation and Budget Reform Commission, a 29-member panel that has the power to submit constitutional amendments for voters' approval as early as this year. The commission's first meeting will be March 16 in Tallahassee.

Take it with you

Under Wilkinson's plan, residents would be able to take a portion of their current exemption when they sell their home and buy another within the state. The initiative would allow residents to carry up the 50% of the difference between the assessed value and the market value of their home and subtract it from the market value of their new home.

Wilkinson has included a $400,000 limit to keep the wealthiest Floridians from benefiting and that amount would be adjusted for inflation annually. "That covers 98% of homesteaders," Wilkinson says.

Wilkinson argues that portability would give a boost to the sagging residential real estate market. And governments would collect more revenue from documentary stamps and sales taxes based on the resulting higher number of transactions.

An effort is underway to collect the 611,000 signatures needed to put the portability issue on the ballot, including an online effort via the Web on Wilkinson's site, But Wilkinson says the process is tedious and costly and he prefers a legislative solution. "The sole purpose [of collecting signatures] is to pressure the legislature," Wilkinson says. "Then we can fold our tent."

Wilkinson says an array of government interests are aligned against portability with watered-down alternatives. One proposal limits portability to elderly and low-income residents. Another proposes to slowly double the homestead exemption over a 10-year period. Wilkinson is concerned that if such proposals are bundled together on a ballot, voters who dislike one part of it may vote down the idea entirely.

Away with property taxes

The most radical proposal to come out of Tallahassee so far is the elimination of property taxes for homesteaded properties and a 2.5 percentage-point increase in the sales tax to make up the difference.

Wilkinson says the political pressure by business lobbyists will probably kill the proposal. A similar proposal by former Florida Senate President John McKay failed a few years ago.

Still Wilkinson says eliminating most sales-tax exemptions would generate enough revenue so that the sales tax rate wouldn't have to be raised beyond its current 6% rate.

And eliminating property taxes for homesteaded properties is most appealing. "As a homeowner, I've got to like that," he says.


Issue. Property taxes

Who. Lee County Property Appraiser Ken Wilkinson

Key. Wilkinson urges portability of homestead exemptions.

Commission aims for tax reform

Gov. Charlie Crist appointed 11 members to the Taxation and Budget Reform Commission, including four from the Gulf Coast. The commission will begin meeting on March 16 and can submit proposed constitutional amendments.

The governor's four Gulf Coast appointees were:

• Hoyt "Barney" Barnett, 63, Lakeland. Barnett is vice chairman of Publix Super Markets and served as chairman of the Tampa Bay Partnership. He is a board member of Florida TaxWatch and the James Madison Institute.

• John McKay, 58, Bradenton. McKay served as state senator from 1990 to 2002, including a term as Senate president. He is a real estate broker and president of John M. McKay Inc.

• Nancy Riley, 59, Clearwater. Riley is the president of the Florida Association of Realtors, a director for the National Association of Realtors and is a real estate broker with Coldwell Banker Residential Real Estate in Pinellas County.

• Ken Wilkinson, 62, Fort Myers. Wilkinson is the Lee County property appraiser who championed the "Save Our Homes" amendment in 1992.


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