The deadline for Bay County property owners to pay their taxes is March 31, and thousands are at risk of becoming delinquent. Those that miss the deadline will see their names in print as required by state law, but they will appear in a different publication this year.
On Tuesday, county commissioners voted to publish the list of delinquent property tax owners in the Bay County Bullet and not the News Herald, as had been done for several years.
Publishing the list in 6,000 editions of the smaller weekly newspaper – once a week for three straight weeks – will cost an estimated $54,000. Last year, the insert cost $215,000 to run in the News Herald, which has a higher circulation.
Commissioners considered three options, with quantities ranging from a low of 850 to a high of 23,000. "I don't think you have to select the most publication... you're not compelled to the lowest publication," County Attorney Terrell Arline told the board. "It's what you think is fair and reasonable."
The publishing cost is tacked on to delinquent tax bills and is absorbed by late payers. The News Herald had argued in recently published articles that reducing the cost won't save the county any money.
Phil Lucas, editor of the Bullet, said his competitor's argument is flawed. "The people delinquent on taxes need the money," said Lucas. "Bay County is not government, it's people."
Several News Herald executives were also in the commission chamber but did not address the board. In an editorial published in last Sunday's edition, the paper invoked Florida's Sunshine Law in making a case for wider distribution. "Government has an obligation to make available to as many people as possible information that is vital to the public interest," the editor wrote. "Publishing the list in hundreds, not tens of thousands, of papers undermines the spirit of the law, which is to disseminate the information to as many citizens as possible."
Lucas disagreed. "The circulation argument's been debunked long ago in this state," said Lucas. "If you meet the statutory requirements to publish legal advertising, you meet them... so there's no argument for size."
Before taking a vote, the commission pressed Arline for an opinion on whether a wider distribution was necessary. "The courts have not required that the newspaper be delivered to every parcel in the county," he said. "Property owners who are delinquent get mailed notices."
The board accepted the Bullet's bid on a 3-2 vote. Commissioners Mike Thomas and Guy Tunnell voted against the proposal because they preferred the least expensive option of 850 copies at a cost of $20,000.
Afterwards, commissioners said they were satisfied that they did the right thing. "We have an obligation here to all the taxpayers and if somebody is struggling to pay their taxes then they probably need a break worse than anybody," said Chairman George Gainer.
"I felt like we should have done everything we could do to make it easier on them," said Thomas. "Over the last ten years, it's close to two million dollars... that's a lot of money that people won't be spending in Bay County."
The News Herald declined to comment on the board's decision.
According to Peggy Brannon, Tax Collector, taxes have not yet been paid on more than 24,000 parcels which equates to more than $27 million in revenue outstanding.