CLEARWATER — For the second year since Florida voters agreed to give local governments the option to waive property taxes for certain low-income seniors, Clearwater once again kicked the can down the road.
Amendment 11 to the state constitution, passed last November, gives municipalities the option to grant an additional homestead exemption completely waiving city property tax on homes valued at $250,000 or less that are owned by seniors at least age 65. The home must be their permanent residence for 25 or more years, and annual gross household income can’t exceed $27,590, which will be adjusted annually for inflation by the Florida Department of Revenue. Those seniors are still responsible for school and other taxes.
The way the state constitution is currently written, the legislation also allows counties and cities to establish an additional homestead exemption of up to $50,000 to qualifying seniors in addition to the $50,000 in exemptions already enjoyed by all Florida homeowners, who are permanent residents.
But so far, Clearwater hasn’t approved a low-income senior exemption higher than $25,000.
Last December, when the city council considered the new exemption for the 2013 tax year, the board decided there wasn’t enough time to fully understand the financial impact to city revenues before the Pinellas County Tax Collector’s submittal deadline.
At council work sessions earlier this month, the matter was revisited for the 2014 tax year. The deadline to establish the new exemption is Dec. 1.
City staff reported that the value of property receiving the existing $25,000 exemption from the 2012 tax roll was in excess of $32 million and lost city revenue was approximately $165,000.
“I can’t say exactly how much this (new) amendment would affect us, although it would probably be a small amount, but I have no way of knowing,” said city budget director Tina Wilson.
She added she didn’t know the income levels of those seniors living in homes for 25 years or more. Wilson said she received only one phone call from a resident who inquired about the city’s position on the exemption.
“Out of the 110,000 people, there’s only one person who thinks this is a good idea,” said Vice Mayor Paul Gibson. “There is no groundswell for this.”
“I’ve been looking at property records … and I think this situation is going to be very limited,” said Councilman Bill Jonson.
He said he felt the additional exemption could provide a great benefit for the few qualifying seniors who are on a tight budget and are having trouble keeping up with their property taxes as inflation over many years has increased the assessed value of their homes.
The state requires a “supermajority” to approve Amendment 11, meaning that four out of the five council members must vote in favor. Normally, a council agenda item would require three out of five “yes” votes to pass.
Councilman Jay Polglaze was unable to attend the Nov. 7 meeting, and the remaining four members seemed deadlocked on the issue, with Gibson and Mayor George Cretekos opposed and Jonson and Doreen Hock-DiPolito in favor.
By the time the agenda item was presented at the next meeting on Nov. 20, when all council members were present, it was determined time had run out to meet the Pinellas County Tax Collector’s Dec. 1 deadline for the exemption to become effective in 2014.
Although council members could have voted for the exemption to take effect for the 2015 tax year, the motion died when it wasn’t seconded.