The most hotly-contested items on Florida's General Election ballot might not have anything to do with candidates. The fate of eleven constitutional amendments will be decided, and one of them – Amendment 4 – has stirred passions on both sides of the issue.
The proposal addresses items that hit close to home: property values, property taxes and homestead exemptions.
The Florida Association of Counties and Florida League of Cities oppose the measure. According to one study, Amendment 4 will reduce property tax revenue by nearly $2 billion over four years.
Bay County stands to lose up to $4 million, said Ed Smith, County Manager. "I think it's one of those things where it was a good idea to start and then has kind of gone into this area where we're creating a new tax class for certain citizens," said Smith. "I don't think it's a good idea."
The Bay County Association of Realtors has joined the state association in support of the amendment. "I believe that it will be a positive impact on Florida and will spur economic growth that we need," said Katie Patronis, the local association president.
Amendment 4 creates an additional homestead exemption for first time homebuyers, lowers the maximum yearly assessment increase on non-homestead properties from 10% to 5%, and gives state lawmakers authority to prevent assessment increases when property values decline.
Patronis said the cap on assessments will give owners of small businesses, commercial property, rental homes and non-homesteaded properties predictability. "They will be able to plan and budget because they will have the assurance that their property taxes will not go up more than five percent," she said.
Counties argue that the non-resident owner provision will shift the tax burden to the state's homeowners. "People who live here and own property here won't have this exemption, but snowbirds and people from out of state that own property will be eligible," said Smith.
Patronis said she's okay with that. "We welcome those people to Bay County and the surrounding counties… and if they don't have any predictability, it's hard for them to make that decision to invest in a second home," Patronis said.
Bay County commissioners chose not to increase property taxes in 2013 and instead reduced the county budget by nearly $800,000 and eliminated 17 positions. Smith said state legislators who suggest increasing property taxes to offset Amendment 4's impact are out of touch. "That's easy for a state lawmaker to say, but it's a little more difficult at home when you're telling the folks that we're going to have to raise millage rates," he said. "There hasn't been an appetite for that for our board, so we'll probably have to look for additional cuts."
According to Florida TaxWatch, Amendment 4 would create more than 19,000 jobs, increase personal income by more than $5.3 billion, and lead to as many as 383,000 additional home sales during the ten year period following passage and implementation.
Patronis said concerns over higher taxes are overblown. "They do not have to raise taxes... if they choose to do that, that will be their decision," she said. "Will they have to adjust their budgets? Possibly, but each county and city will be able to look at that and do it on an as needed basis."
Amendment 4, like all eleven amendments on the November ballot, requires 60% voter approval for adoption.