Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Creative Taxation

Is that a good definition?

Davie sets the tone on what we can expect from our local governments.

I have been a permanent advocate of lower property taxes.

A key source of employment in Florida, housing construction, sales, financing and maintenance are major components of our economy. Property taxes have increased well above the official inflation rates during the last two or three decades.

Thousands of new homes and condos in every location have surely tremendously broadened the taxable base of most cities in South Florida. That has not been enough to feed the appetite of voracious cities and counties.

A couple of lukewarm regulations by our Florida congressmen have aimed to ease homeowners’ pains, as well as an amendment recently approved to increase the homestead exemption amount. Our taxes are calculated on the assessed value of each property, which is determined by the county property appraiser’s office, multiplied by the “millage” which is determined by the local governments.

While our legislators have focused on reducing the assessed values, local governments are starting to defeat this purpose by increasing their millage, which is what was to expect, and I wrote about it a long time ago.

However, the flood of new service charges that many cities are implementing is starting to look more and more as double taxation. Charging us for services traditionally covered by our property taxes is the new plague that relentless local authorities are uncovering. I wouldn’t be surprised if the cop handing you a ticket for a traffic violation could include an additional bill for his “services” with a "thank you for your business" remark, or if a local library could charge you a “shipping and handling” fee every time you pick a book.

Here is an example of this kind of creativity. The city of Davie is today's winner. Read this article from the Sun Sentinel.

By Susannah Bryan - South Florida Sun-Sentinel - September 30, 2008

Accident response fees are so controversial that five states — Georgia, Indiana, Missouri, Pennsylvania and Tennessee — have passed laws to ban them.

Yet Davie on Wednesday is set to give final approval to a measure that would bill at-fault residents and out-of-towners an estimated $840 for costs associated with responding to car accidents. If it can't be determined who is at fault, all parties would be billed.

"It is a cost recovery fee for people who are creating havoc on our highways," Councilwoman Susan Starkey said on Monday.

If approved, Davie would become the first municipality in South Florida to charge such a fee. The town tentatively approved it 3-2 on Sept. 17, with council members Michael Crowley, Marlon Luis and Susan Starkey supporting it. Mayor Tom Truex and Councilman Bryan Caletka rejected it.

As Davie moves ahead, insurance companies are working to persuade Florida to ban such fees. They argue the fee will raise insurance rates and is really a hidden tax.

"We have been trying hard to fight back," saidWilliam Stander, assistant vice president of Property Casualty Insurers Association of America, a trade group that represents more than 1,000 companies nationwide. "The idea that you should have to pay for police and fire services, it's offensive."

Insurers lobbied five states to ban the accident fee and each agreed because of concerns over double taxation.

State Rep. Martin Kiar, D-Davie, said the issue may come up in Florida this legislative session.

"People are having such a tough time making ends meet," Kiar said. "For the cities to impose another fee, it's just not fair to our people."

On July 28, Pembroke Pines commissioners voted against a similar fee, citing concerns it would expose the city to costly legal challenges. Officials in Plantation, Miramar and Southwest Ranches, who had briefly considered the idea, say they have dropped it.

If approved, Davie would hire Dayton, Ohio-based Cost Recovery Corp. to bill insurers. If they don't pay, nonresidents would get a bill but residents would not.

Supporters argue that Davie responds to more accidents than other cities because it is surrounded by Interstates 95, 595, 75 and Florida's Turnpike. As proposed, the fee would apply to accidents on highways and local roads that require emergency response, including those outside town.

Critics say the fee may lead to a tit-for-tat mentality, with cash-strapped cities passing similar laws to raise money.

In July, Weston City Manager John Flint said his city would likely charge an accident fee to residents of cities who impose such a fee on Westonites. But on Monday, Mayor Eric Hersh said he opposes such a plan.

"If everyone starts charging, it's really nothing but an increase in taxes for everybody," Hersh said.

The plan also doesn't sit well with Steve Breitkreuz, a councilman in nearby Southwest Ranches.

"It doesn't sound neighborly," he said. "It creates animosity between the towns. It may set a precedence that will ripple out through the communities and we'll all be looking out for our own."

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