Firefighters paint tax cut horror

Published: Wednesday, January 9, 2008 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 9, 2008 at 12:00 a.m.

TALLAHASSEE - It sounds like a Stephen King novel: Children mowed down in the streets with homes going up in flames.

That's the scary world envisioned by opponents of the Jan. 29 property tax amendment who ratcheted up their attacks on the plan Tuesday at a Tallahassee fire station.

Bob Carver, president of Florida Professional Firefighters, a lobbying group, said the $9 billion loss of revenue for schools and local governments over the next five years would increase response time from firemen in the state as employees are laid off and new stations are not built.

"It will have disastrous consequences,'' he said.

Carver said nearly 250 firefighters have been laid off statewide after lawmakers cut billions in property taxes last year. He said the impact of local government cuts on all law enforcement might leave the state "ill-prepared to face the next hurricane, wildfire season or, at worst, a terrorist attack.''

Dawn Steward, the legislative chair of the Florida PTA, was even more alarming. She said cutbacks may lead to fewer crossing guards to usher schoolchildren across busy roads.

"That leaves your five-year-old walking to school, your middle schooler, your teenagers. We don't want them to be run over,'' she said.

Gov. Charlie Crist ripped the "gloom and doom'' tactics of Amendment One opponents on Tuesday.

"I think it's sad,'' said the governor, who took the day off to raise funds in Jacksonville and Orlando. "To try to scare people into voting some way is never good. I don't think the people of Florida appreciate those kind of tactics.''

Expect more of this message in the next three weeks as opponents rely on visceral appeals with fliers, e-mails and word of mouth. Lacking the fiscal firepower of the campaign led by Crist and business groups, the opposition - Florida Is Our Home - is banking on its image in communities.

The group's members include the Florida Education Association, public employee unions and the Florida PTA.

The group sent out a flier last week with dire warnings that "the results will be catastrophic'' as "emergency services will be pushed to breaking point.''

Crist, not surprisingly, has offered a cheerier message, saying that the tax break will "fire up'' the state's economy by making real estate transactions more affordable.

The Jan. 29 referendum would increase the homestead exemption and allow existing residents to keep accrued Save Our Homes tax savings if they move. It would also put a limit on future assessment increases for businesses and part-time residents while creating a new tax break for business equipment.

Crist's fund-raising success has lagged. "Yes on One'' has raised about $2.8 million as of Tuesday. Of that, $1 million came from the Florida Association of Realtors and $500,000 came from Florida Power & Light. Crist refused FP&L donations last year for his election campaign after the group backed his GOP primary opponent.

FP&L stands to gain little if any direct benefit from Amendment One, but spokesman Mayco Villafana said the company hoped the plan's passage would help its employees and customers.

"As a Florida-based company, we are concerned with the impact escalating property taxes are having on homeowners and we wanted to do our part to resolve this issue in a manner that benefits Florida residents,'' Villafana said in an e-mail Tuesday.

Crist also benefited from a New York fund-raiser hosted by Donald Trump. Meanwhile, average citizen donations have been meager.

"The governor is counting on support from Donald Trump, Florida's powerful moneyed special interests and millions of dollars,'' said Karen Woodall, the chair of Florida Is Our Home.

Crist is facing opposition from groups that have generally been supportive of his political career, especially law enforcement unions.

Carver said any animosity is likely to be short-lived.

"I think this just happens to be an issue we simply disagree on,'' he said.

Crist said he was not thinking about the political cost of upsetting certain political groups. "All I'm worried about is that the citizens of Florida get a tax cut,'' he said.

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