CLEARWATER - Citizen unrest about property taxes again took center stage during last Thursday's meeting of the Clearwater City Council. The marathon discussion of the city's budget and tax rate ran over two hours, but citizens were given only a token reduction in the millage rate and no reduction in spending.
Citizens lined up at the podium with a seemingly endless list of property tax complaints and recommended solutions. Dave Ewert said that rising property insurance and taxes were driving the middle class from Clearwater and reducing his customer base. He recommended eliminating the city subsidy of the Jolley Trolley, closing the Harborview Center, eliminating the recycling program, canceling the Beach Walk project, and forming a metropolitan government to take the place of the 23 city bureaucracies in the county. Ewert's list was longer, but the three-minute timer cut his presentation short.
Marty Altner called the current property tax situation an emergency. Reading from a prepared statement, he said that the increasing property taxes and insurance rates have put an impossible burden on business and property owners.
But three minutes twenty six seconds into his presentation, City Clerk Cyndie Goudeau turned the microphone off - Altner had exceeded his three-minute limit! His booming voice carried to all in attendance in Council chambers, but those watching the meeting on CVIEW or via streaming video were deprived of what he had to say.
Thirty-five seconds later, Mayor Frank Hibbard directed Goudeau to turn the microphone back on, and Altner concluded his speech, calling on the Council to approve the rolled-back millage rate. For the benefit of those denied the opportunity of hearing all of Altners speech, the Gazette has published his prepared statement in its entirety as a sidebar to this article.
Ken Humphreys was disappointed that the Council did little more than provide a "minimal amount of relief" in the form of a slight millage reduction. He predicted property values will decrease in the next budget cycle, eroding tax revenues, and worried that taxpayers would not approve the extension to the Penny for Pinellas local option sales tax, further reducing tax revenues. "I fear that you have woken a sleeping giant by your inaction, which will not tolerate an increase in the millage rate to make up for these shortfalls," Humphreys said.
Louis Anastasopolous, the owner of several commercial properties on the beach, complained of his increasing property tax burden. He offered Pelican Walk as an example, claiming that he paid $68,000 in property tax three years ago, and must pay $170,000 this year. He described his lease with the city for the beach branch library; of the $17 per square foot he collects from the city, $8 is required to pay for property tax and insurance, leaving him with only $9.
Anastasopolous said that his tenants are increasingly unable to pay the rents he must charge, and told Councilmember Carlen Petersen, an advocate for homelessness projects, "we will become homeless ourselves."
After more than two hours of public comment and discussion, the Council found no room for more budget cuts. However they did reduce the millage rate by .0442 mills, not by reducing spending but by creative accounting. Rather than shift the entirety of support of the Jolley Trolley and the Beach Lifeguards to the General Fund, they kept half of it, approximately $452-thousand, in the parking fund, whose revenues will decline as the Gulfview Blvd portion of Beach Walk is constructed next year.
Mayor Frank Hibbard was clearly not satisfied with the outcome. He called for the establishment of a citizen task force to examine the city's 2006/07 budget and to make recommendations on items that could be cut during the fiscal year.
While any savings could not be returned directly to the taxpayers, they could build a surplus that might reduce expenses in following years. Hibbard suggested using such savings to reduce the bonding amount for the Beach Walk project, saving interest expenses for the entire life of the bonds and potentially lowering future millage rates.
For the record, Clearwater's 2006/07 millage rate will be 5.2088 mills, down about 4 percent from the original staff-proposed rate of 5.42 mills.
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