Dan Boyd: A bad deal for Florida

Published: Sunday, January 20, 2008 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 19, 2008 at 4:45 p.m.

In Jan. 29, every registered voter in Alachua County will have an opportunity to cast a ballot on an issue that will affect the quality of life in this community and throughout Florida for years to come. That issue is the statewide property tax referendum.

This proposed constitutional amendment would reduce property taxes. Two of the four tax-cutting proposals on the ballot would have a significant impact on public education in Florida and in our community. As Superintendent of Alachua County Public Schools, I feel I have a responsibility to share information about that impact with the public.

One of the proposals would allow homeowners to take their current property tax value savings under the Save Our Homes program and apply them to the taxable value of a new home, up to half a million dollars. (The Save Our Homes program limits the amount by which a property's taxable value can increase each year.) Statewide it's projected that this provision would result in a loss of about $84 million for schools next year and nearly $1.2 billion over the next five years.

Then there's the proposed $25,000 exemption on equipment used by businesses. It's expected this would cost Florida schools about $77.5 million next year and $402 million over the next five years.

What about the impact on Alachua County Public Schools? We're estimating that our school system would lose more than $17 million over the next five years in both operating and facilities funding if this amendment passes.

And there would be other consequences, for example, our ability to issue the certificates of participation that allow us to build more classrooms would be reduced. The district would also be forced to raise property taxes to continue to pay the principal and interest on outstanding bond issues approved by local voters in the past.

Many people aren't aware that under Florida's current educational funding system, most of their school property tax rate is actually set by the state legislature, not their locally-elected school board.

Each year lawmakers decide how much money they will allocate per student. They set the property tax rate that each local school board must levy in order to receive state funding. The state then makes up the difference between the money collected through that local property tax and the overall student allocation.

If less money is collected locally, which would be the case if the referendum passes, where will the state get the extra money needed to make up the difference? Will it cut per pupil funding, which is already more than $1,500 below the national average? We don't know the answers to those questions.

Governor Crist has proposed more money for education to offset the cuts, but there is absolutely no guarantee the Florida Legislature will follow that proposal this year or in subsequent years; certainly not with a $2 billion to $3 billion revenue loss projected for the next two years.

We do know that some cities and counties are already considering the possibility of raising fees for certain services to make up some of the anticipated shortfall, which means that citizens could actually be spending more money out of pocket.

And keep in mind that homeowners get a break on their federal taxes based on how much they pay in property taxes. Fees charged for services once supported through property taxes would not be tax deductible. That's another impact on homeowners' wallets that hasn't been well-publicized.

For years the School Board's legislative platform has included a request to lawmakers to review the existing tax structure and adopt reforms that ensure a fair and stable funding system. Alachua County Public Schools recognizes the need for meaningful tax reform in Florida. This proposal doesn't meet that need, and it certainly doesn't meet the needs of our students or their families.

I encourage citizens to learn all they can about this proposal, consider its long term impact on their finances, their families and the quality of life in our community, and then go to the polls on January 29 armed with all the information they need to make this very important decision.

Dan Boyd is superintendent of Alachua County Public Schools.

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