LARGO – For several months, city leaders have discussed the many financial challenges Largo will face in years to come, and they have said state lawmakers are the cause of some of those obstacles.
During a legislative roundtable Aug. 29 at City Hall, city commissioners told their concerns to some of those lawmakers – Sen. Jeff Brandes, Rep. Chris Latvala and Rep. Larry Ahern – but, in some cases, may not have received the answers they were hoping for.
“We’ve had a lot of challenges and we are a very lean operating machine right now, but we still provide excellent service to our residents and they expect that,” Mayor Woody Brown said. “… With some of the challenges we see upcoming, it’s going to be really difficult. We’ll have to cut real services to our residents or find new revenue streams.”
One of those challenges is a proposed constitutional amendment on the November 2018 ballot that, if approved, would increase the homestead exemption by $25,000 for properties with a value in excess of $100,000, costing the city of Largo $655,000 annually beginning in fiscal year 2020.
Brandes didn’t back down when asked about the exemption, and said he was thinking of residents, not local governments, when he voted to put it on the ballot.
“I’m for lower taxes any time, any reason,” he said. “Dangle a tax decrease in front of me and I will vote for it. Let me tell you, our residents are struggling. Our residents are having a difficult time coming up with a thousand dollars.”
He said if families are having to tighten their belts, then it’s not unreasonable to ask governments to do the same. He added that local officials have the right to educate residents about what the tax cut would mean to the city’s coffers.
“If you asked me to do that again, I would vote for it again,” he said. “If you wanted to double it, I would vote to double it.”
Brown said he respected Brandes’ position, but since the average value of a home in Largo is less than $80,000, he didn’t think the exemption would have the effect Brandes wanted.
“There’s not a whole lot of people that hit that mark of $100,000,” Brown said. “There’s some and those aren’t the people that need a tax cut, frankly, I think.”
Commissioner John Carroll added that residents are actually getting a good deal for the amount they are paying to the city.
“I’m very sensitive to the fact that our residents pay as much to the county and as much to the School Board as they pay in municipal taxes for the services we provide,” he said. “So, it’s our phones that ring when the pothole needs to be fixed or the trash didn’t get picked up. Most people look at the total on the (Truth in Millage) notice and they don’t realize they are getting a pretty good bargain here in the city.”
Since officials said traditional revenue streams are drying up, Commissioner Curtis Holmes asked whether they thought the state sales tax should apply to internet transactions, even if they originate outside the state.
Latvala and Ahern, both Republicans, said they would support the idea.
“It’s not a popular opinion amongst a lot of the people in my party, but I would be in favor of that,” Latvala said. “I don’t look at it as raising taxes, because it doesn’t raise taxes. It equals the playing field.”
Brandes, however, said he didn’t like the idea because it would be a burden to small business owners.
“I think many businesses online are small businesses,” he said. “It’s frankly onerous for many of them to try to figure out … 67 different tax laws potentially in the state. Add that times 50 states, times every single county and different cities obviously have tax statutes too.”
Home rule and redevelopment
Commissioners also expressed concerns about several pieces of legislation that eliminate the power local governments have to impose regulations.
“Home rule is one of those issues that municipalities and counties are very sensitive to,” City Manager Henry Schubert said. “We feel in many ways we are the folks that are closest to the residents, to the voters and we should have, to the extent possible, some freedom to meet those needs and to deal directly with those unique issues that face each community because we are all different.”
Brandes said the challenge for the Legislature is to try to decide where it makes sense to have statewide policy, such as in the case of traffic laws.
“There are areas that are gray that we are just going to disagree on,” he said. “I think that is always the challenge in this process.”
One of those areas where Largo leaders and Brandes disagree are community redevelopment agencies.
Largo established its CRA in 1997, using property tax dollars to target blighted areas of West Bay Drive and Clearwater-Largo Road.
Citing corruption and abuse, legislation in the last session sought to tighten restrictions on the spending and creation of CRAs. The measures also called for the program to sunset in 2035, which didn’t make sense to Brown.
“I don’t think it’s going to negatively affect our CRA, but I think it’s a bad idea to eliminate the chance for a city to tackle a blighted area and to give them the tools to do so,” he said.
Brandes said it does make sense because the program will be renewed if it’s successful, and if it’s not, then there’s one less bad law on the books.
“There are so many bad ideas that have stuck around on the legislative books because they weren’t sunsetted,” Brandes said. “There are so many special districts that have abused the system and become slush funds for a variety of different operators, and I think ultimately the best thing we could do is sunset most programs.”
Brown and Commissioner Jamie Robinson agreed that improvements could be made but eliminating CRAs shouldn’t be on the table.
“If you guys want to have a discussion about some sort of fixing of CRAs, we can have a discussion about that,” Robinson said. “But let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. It’s not a bad program. We do an outstanding program here in Largo.”