Miami-Dade County seeks Florida Legislature's OK to freeze some senior's tax bills
By Ashley Hopkins
In an effort to keep lower- and middle-income seniors in their homes, the county commission is urging the legislature to consider a constitutional amendment that would allow Miami-Dade to freeze those persons' property tax bills.
Jose "Pepe" Diaz, who was a chief proponent of the legislation as it worked through the commission, is setting up meetings with lobbyists in hopes of finding a state sponsor.
"I think the people who have worked hard and provided for all of us — it's time to give them some kind of relief," he said at the commission's Oct. 19 meeting.
At the meeting he voted to urge the state legislature to pass a joint resolution that would allow local governments to prohibit increases and cap property tax bills for seniors making less than $50,000 a year.
The state's 1995 Save Our Homes exemption caps yearly increases in assessed values on properties receiving homestead tax exemptions at 3% or the annual increase in the Consumer Price Index, whichever is lower. While the 2010 Consumer Price Index increased 2.7%, for the first time in many years property market values have been declining.
As Save Our Homes requires that appraisers raise assessed property values until they reach market values, this year 251,000 county seniors saw their property tax bill rise despite the market value drop.
When a house is sold, however, taxes are calculated based on the full market value of the property. As a result, the assessed value is adjusted to meet the current market value, possibly doubling or tripling taxes depending on how long the previous owner held the property. The resulting tax hike has made it difficult for seniors to sell their homes.
While residents 65 and older now can receive an additional homestead exemption on property tax bills if their annual income is less than $25,780, according to Mr. Diaz's resolution, many senior citizens' income exceeds this amount. At the October commission meeting, Mr. Diaz said that based on the studies he has seen, most retirees receive $50,000 to $80,000 yearly. According to 2008 census estimates, the average household income in Miami Dade was $43,921.
"The people who are losing their homes aren't just the young bucks who bought their houses in the middle of the bubble," Mr. Diaz said. "The people who have had their houses for a long time are finding they can't pay."
Mr. Diaz sponsored the legislation in hopes residents living off fixed social security income wouldn't have to worry about making ends meet at month's end.
Federal law has mandated automatic cost-of-living adjustments in social security payments since 1975. Social security benefits have been adjusted based on the rate of inflation and have steadily increased for nearly 34 years.
While recipients saw a 5.8% increase going into 2009, by the next year inflation had decreased and consumer prices had dropped. For the second year in a row, recipients will not receive a cost of living increase for 2010-2011, leaving many seniors cash-strapped.
While Commissioner Katy Sorenson agreed that high property tax bills were becoming an increasingly difficult problem to combat, she expressed concern over tweaking Save Our Homes legislation and the consequences that could result.
"I certainly agree that it's a real problem, but I don't think this is the solution," she said, adding that she would rather the county provide relief funding.
Barbara Jordan was also concerned about the legislation. She said that while she favors helping low-income seniors, she didn't want county services cut as a result.
"I understand that we're talking about a freeze," she said. "I wish we could freeze our expenses. I wish we could freeze our growth. I wish we could free all costs across the board. Then I could support it, but we can't do that."
While Commissioner Carlos Gimenez supported the resolution, he said he thought the proposed $50,000 cap was too low. As someone who has suffered from ever-increasing property tax bills himself, he said, he asked the commission to consider raising the limit.
"Had we not had Save Our Homes, I would have been taxed right out of my house," he said. "I could not afford $2,500 a month in taxes.… If we're going to do this, make the thresholds higher."
Mr. Gimenez also asked that the commission consider a requirement that residents live and pay property taxes within the area for a set period before becoming eligible for the freeze. Otherwise, he said, "you may have a bunch of senior citizens flocking to the state."
Despite his concerns over income levels, Mr. Gimenez remained supportive of what Mr. Diaz hoped to accomplish with the legislation.
"I don't think it's right that we tax people right out of their homes," he said, "or force them to move when they have the least control over their income."