Tallahassee, FLA: Charter to bring 'big changes' - Possible differences include new utilities tax, lower property tax

"Citizens can petition their government now," says commission chair "And they couldn't do that before. That's an exciting thing."

By Jeff Burlew
Tallahassee Democrat


Tallahassee, FLA - Now that voters have approved a home-rule charter for Leon County, they can expect to see possible creation of a new utilities tax, possible reductions in property taxes and other changes in the years to come.

"In the long run, you'll see some pretty big changes," said Lance deHaven-Smith, a professor of public policy at Florida State University who advocated passage of the charter.

On Tuesday, the county's charter initiative passed with 52 percent of the vote. The charter, which provides a modern framework for county government, includes provisions that allow citizens to initiate or amend ordinances and permit county commissioners to change the way residents are taxed.

The charter is due to take effect Tuesday. However, a lawsuit filed last week seeking to block certification of the charter election results is pending in Leon Circuit Court. A hearing on the lawsuit is scheduled for this morning just before elections results are supposed to be submitted to the state.

Perhaps the most immediate effect of the charter will be a change in the way community redevelopment areas, known as CRAs, are approved. With a charter in place, Leon County would essentially have veto power over any CRAs proposed by the city of Tallahassee, according to Assistant County Administrator Vince Long.

The city is currently proposing a CRA that could funnel $77 million in county property taxes into downtown revitalization efforts over 30 years. County Commissioner Tony Grippa, widely expected to become chairman of the commission later this month, said blocking the downtown CRA would be his highest priority.

City Attorney Jim English has said the city is far enough along in setting up the CRA that the county, even with the charter, would be unable to stop it. However, Long disputed that.

"As a charter county, the Board of County Commissioners will have to authorize this CRA before it is effective," Long said.

County commissioners also are expected to tackle the issue of tax fairness in the months to come. Without the charter, the county was forced to rely almost entirely upon property taxes to pay for services. With the charter, the county could create a new tax on utilities and possibly reduce property taxes.
Some commissioners have said a tax on utilities would be fairer than a tax on property because it would be levied on all utility users rather than just property owners. The tax also would show up on monthly bills rather than on a yearly property tax bill.

Enhances tax flexibility

It's an issue Chairman Dan Winchester expects will come up during the commission's annual retreat in December, when it sets priorities for the new year.

"The beauty of the charter is we're able to have that discussion and reduce the burden on property owners," Winchester said. "It gives us the ability to be a lot more creative and fair to all the tax payers and property owners."

DeHaven-Smith said long-term effects of the charter could include consolidation of some city and county services, such as law enforcement. Without the charter, any such change would have required approval of the Legislature, he said.

Citizen initiatives also could open the door to big changes for Leon County.

The charter provides for appointment of a citizen charter review committee every eight years to recommend possible changes to county government. County commissioners would appoint the members of the review committee.

"But they are not going to appoint people who will do things that the commissioners themselves would be unhappy with," said deHaven-Smith, who added that charter amendments are more likely to come from commissioners than citizens.

Leon County's charter requires petition signatures from 10 percent of voters countywide before a measure can be placed on the ballot. Of those, there must be signatures from 10 percent of voters in each of the five commission districts. That's the highest such standard of all of Florida's charter counties.

Long said it was too early to tell whether citizens would launch petition drives any time soon to change the charter. But he said commissioners and citizens alike could propose charter amendments before the review committee convenes.

Winchester said citizen participation is the most important aspect of the new charter government.

"Citizens can petition their government now," Winchester said. "And they couldn't do that before. That's an exciting thing."


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