Simple solution, but not easier
Here’s something you’re not going to see every day:
Me changing my mind on something I felt pretty sure about.
Such as, I felt sure a sales tax referendum to help pay for repaving neighborhood roads and providing marine law enforcement to the sheriff’s office, among other things, was a good idea.
But after reading some of the spirited conversation from Monday’s blog, I’ve taken a totally different turn.
We shouldn’t ask voters for a sales tax to pay for basic functions of government. Public safety and taking care of public property, such as a road, are the government’s responsibility.
It’s easy for politicians to point to the sales tax as a panacea because it’s a win-win for them. If voters approve the new tax, that’s money for programs that make politicians popular. If voters say no, politicians blame the public for not getting things done.
I’ll come back to the sales tax another time, but let’s talk about that dilemma for a moment.
My friend Bill Hunter, a somewhat recent Pine Ridge transplant and Just Wright Citrus devotee, is a big believer of raising the sales tax a penny because the county is millions of dollars behind in resurfacing streets.
(Speaking of road problem...yes, today's photo is the same one as Monday's. I searched through the vast Just Wright Citrus archives and we apparently have just one crumbling road photo. Our crack photo staff (me) will get on that right away.)
Hunter makes his point — but not for the sales tax, which I still believe is an abject failure at the ballot box no matter how it’s dressed up.
But if county commissioners truly believe catching up to and getting ahead of road resurfacing is in the public’s best interest, they should increase the property tax to pay for it.
That’s right, the property tax. The one that doesn’t need a public vote. The one that’s stayed steady for years, and now we have a bunch of needs and no way to pay for them.
County commissioners LOATHE property tax hikes. They’re just political killers and everyone knows it.
Without getting in the weeds, let’s accept for now the county wants to raise millions for road resurfacing, giving the sheriff what he’s looking for (also a topic for another day), and other necessities that are more expensive. Short of a sales tax referendum, their choices are limited:
— Property tax increase.
The public hates them both, but politicians prefer the MSBU. Let me explain.
The problem with property taxes are the exemptions. There’s the $25,000 homestead exemption, plus the other $50,000 exemption. The Legislature just awarded more exemptions for first responders and teachers.
Plus, the Save Our Homes amendment says the taxable value on a home can’t go up more than 3% or the cost of living, whichever is less. So even as the housing market is going crazy and the sale value of your home may be going through the roof (ha!), the taxable value stays low.
As you see, heading toward a big property tax increase is fraught with peril. Only commissioners with true backbone will venture that path.
MSBU — Municipal Services Benefit Unit — is a whole other animal.
For one, it’s technically a fee not a tax. It’s a flat rate on property; it doesn't go up or down based on land value. And the government needs to show the direct benefit a property owner receives for paying this fee.
Politicians prefer them over the property tax hike because MSBUs have no exemptions other than the ones the board adds when it's voted in. Just about everyone pays an MSBU.
The public has far less understanding of the MSBU than a straight property tax hike. I’m not referring to this board or any other when I say this, but sometimes they like us a little confused. That stormwater fee was confusing as heck.
Maybe this will end up being a combo of the two.
So here’s my suggestion, commissioners: Tell us what you need, justify it so it makes sense, take the idea out on the road to community organizations so they can see what’s going on, and then do what needs to be done — short of asking voters to decide it for you.
Not everyone will be happy and they will voice their displeasure. And then we’ll be having a conversation that matters.
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Mike Wright has written about Citrus County government and politics for 35 years.