CLEARWATER – Amendment 11, approved in the statewide election on Nov. 6, could affect Clearwater’s senior homeowners in two ways. It would allow Clearwater officials to either keep the city’s current $25,000 homestead exemption for low-income seniors or change it to any number between $0 and $50,000. It also would allow city officials to waive all municipal property tax on the first $250,000 of the value of a home owned by someone at least 65 years of age who has lived in it for at least 25 years. But neither change is mandatory.
“You may elect one or both of the senior exemptions, but each option must be adopted by ordinance,” Pinellas County Property Appraiser Pam Dubov wrote in a Nov. 15 memo to officials of the county’s 24 municipalities.
There is no requirement that either measure be adopted and no deadline for adopting them unless a city wants to meet the Jan. 11, 2013 deadline for the additional exemptions to become effective next year. To meet that deadline, the Clearwater City Council would have to approve the changes at both its Dec. 6 and Dec. 20, 2012 meetings.
“I tend to feel that we’re rushing this,” Councilmember Bill Jonson said at the Dec. 3 city council work session. “I’d like to understand this more.”
“If you don’t want to make a change, you could revisit this every year,” Clearwater’s budget director, Tina Wilson, replied. “You don’t have to do anything today.”
The ambiguous wording of the implementing language of Amendment 11 left some municipal authorities wondering if cities such as Clearwater, which already has a $25,000 exemption for low-income seniors, could keep that exemption or would have to either eliminate the $25,000 exemption or increase it to $50,000. But James McAdams, the state’s director of property tax oversight, cleared that up in a Nov. 28 memo to the property appraisers of Florida’s 67 counties.
“It is our understanding that the (state) legislature’s intent was to allow the counties and municipalities to grant an additional exemption to low-income seniors up to $50,000, rather than a flat exemption amount of $50,000,” McAdams wrote. “Therefore, until the legislature is able to address the issue, or the courts of Attorney General provide guidance to the contrary, there is no reason to invalidate current or new ordinances enacting exemptions for low-income seniors that are less than $50,000.”
Budget Director Wilson estimated that 1,550 Clearwater households are now eligible for the current $25,000 exemption. If the exemption were raised to $50,000 and the tax rate remained at the current 5.1550 mills, she estimated that the annual financial impact on the city would be $65,671, assuming that all households eligible for the exemption applied for it. She added that the exemption must be renewed annually.
The council decided that instead of rushing to enact the new exemptions, Clearwater will stick with its current system for at least another year.