Are City Officials Fighting Florida Property Tax Breaks on the Taxpayers' Dime?
Around the State
If passed by 60 percent of the voters the ballot measure -- Amendment 4 -- would provide several property tax breaks to nonhomestead and new homestead property owners. Supporters say the measure would provide fiscal relief to millions of taxpayers and make the state’s property tax system more equitable, while opponents insist it would merely shift tax burdens around, deprive local governments of much-needed revenues, and would actually compound the tax inequalities.
On Tuesday the Florida League of Cities (FLC) hosted a Web-based seminar (or “webinar”) on Amendment 4 educating members on what they believe its deleterious effects will be on the state tax system and city revenues, and possible burdens on some taxpayers. The League joins the Florida Association of Counties (FAC) in opposing the amendment, and a segment of the webinar was devoted to outlining a 10-step “action plan” for city officials to encourage citizens to cast a “No” vote against it.
Two of the steps are raising eyebrows in some quarters:
- “Step 7: Talk about this issue on your local city access channel, local public affairs television show, and in your city's newsletter.”
- "Step 8: Communicate this information on your website or via utility [bill] stuffers."
The action plan was presented by John Thomas, director of communications and political initiatives for the League. Describing steps 7 and 8, about 23 minutes into the webinar, Thomas urged public officials to consult their city attorneys for advice on just what activity was permissible and what wasn't, and during a Q&A segment referred officials to a list of “legal dos and don’ts” published by the League and distributed to cities as part of an “Amendment 4 Toolkit.”
Thomas declined to provide a copy of this tool kit, or of the “dos and don’ts” list, to Sunshine State News. The News contacted four city governments – Jacksonville, Miami, Orlando, and Tallahassee – to find out what public measures, if any, their officials would be taking in opposing Amendment 4.
Jacksonville, Miami, and Orlando did not return calls by Friday evening. But on Thursday, one high-ranking Tallahassee city employee spoke to Sunshine State News on background, saying that his office’s policy is to direct constituent queries to the website and voter’s guide published by the League of Women Voters of Florida.
Sunshine State News consulted Tallahassee-based attorney Sarah M. Bleakley, special counsel to FAC and an expert on local government law, on what legal restrictions cities are under when it comes to promoting or opposing ballot measures. While she declined to comment on the specifics of any particular case, she did direct the News to the relevant law governing this issue: section 106.113 of the Florida statutes.
The statute provides that a “local government or a person acting on behalf of local government may not expend or authorize the expenditure of ... public funds for a political advertisement or electioneering communication concerning an ... amendment ... that is subject to a vote of the electors.”
The statute goes on to say that these restrictions “do not apply to an electioneering communication ... which is limited to factual information.”
Presumably, what steps 7 and 8 of the action plan envisage is the inclusion of unbiased educational materials in city newsletters or utility bills.
But the FLC includes on its website the text of a sample “Amendment 4 Resolution” which its member cities might adopt. While the sample concludes with a statement that a city simply “urges its residents to carefully consider the potential adverse consequences of Amendment 4 before voting in the November 2012 general election,” this resolve is preceded by a series of nine “Whereas” clauses, two of which are manifestly biased in their tone:
- “WHEREAS, Amendment 4 ... creat[es] an unfair disadvantage for new businesses ...”
- “WHEREAS, over the last few years, several property tax initiatives ... have also contributed to the unequal treatment of Florida’s taxpayers ...”
While she would not comment on specifics, Bleakley directed Sunshine State News to subsection 3 of section 106.113 of the Florida statutes, which says state law “does not preclude an elected official of the local government from expressing an opinion on any issue at any time.” A June 14, 2010, formal opinion of the state Division of Elections suggests that this section also applies to non-elected officials and city employees, which would seem to include referring constituents to voter guides that take a stance on ballot measures.
Leading supporters of Amendment 4 insist it is inappropriate for city officials or employees to promote Yes or No votes on ballot measures while they are working on the taxpayer dime, even if such activities are not technically illegal.
"It is outrageous for the Florida League of Cities to instruct local officeholders to inappropriately campaign against the interests of Florida's taxpayers,” state Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, told Sunshine State News after viewing the League’s webinar. “Any politician who misuses their position to advance the pro-tax agenda of the Florida League of Cities should be ashamed."
"Taxpayers First is deeply disturbed that city and county politicians would use their taxpayer-funded positions to intentionally distort the benefits that Amendment 4 would bring to all Floridians,” pro-Amendment 4 campaign manager Ben Fairbrother told the News. “They are advocating the use of public dollars to oppose a taxpayer-friendly amendment and they are doing it without shame. The Florida League of Cities should call on all their members and retract this recommendation for the inappropriate use of taxpayer dollars. For our part, we cannot stand idly by while this occurs. We will continue to tell the truth about local governments' stewardship of taxpayer dollars."
Reach Eric Giunta at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (954) 235-9116.