Okaloosa County is proposing to increase property taxes. The Okaloosa County School Board is proposing to increase property taxes. I live in the city of Destin and it is also proposing to increase property taxes. As a city of Destin resident there are six agencies that have taxing authority over me. Four of those six are proposing increasing property taxes and a fifth, the Destin Fire District, recently tried to increase taxes, but that increase was resoundingly rejected by the voters.
Five out of six agencies raising or trying to raise taxes when we are still trying to recover from a recession is not good economic policy unless it is driven by some emergency.
I examined the Truth in Millage (TRIM) Notice prepared by the County Property Appraiser. The appraised value of property in Okaloosa County increased by more than $257,000,000 or 1.9 percent in 2013 compared to 2012. That means, if the millage rate is not increased, the county will receive 1.9 percent more property tax funds in 2014 than it did in 2013.
If you add the proposed 4.3 percent increase to the 1.9 percent increase, the county is going to actually have an increase of 6.2 percent in property taxes paid in 2014 if the millage rate is increased. Can a 6.2 percent increase in property taxes be justified while unemployment is high and we are trying to recover from a recession? I do not think so.
As good citizens, we know we must pay taxes to fund our government, but what emergency is driving this increase? We have not had an emergency that would justify this kind of increase since Hurricane Opal in 1995.
It appears one of the major justifications for increasing taxes is the need to fund pay raises for public employees because they have not had a true raise in five years. Let me go on the record by saying I believe the county and city employees absolutely deserve a pay raise. As a city councilor in Destin I personally observed their hard work. They have done more with less and merit our thanks. Does that constitute an emergency? NO.
Here’s why. While the public employees were not getting pay raises they did have very secure, stable jobs. They got their checks every two weeks and none of them bounced. Yes they had to adjust their lifestyle to the “Great Recession,” but their pain and anxiety did not approach the pain and anxiety of the private sector workers — the very ones being taxed to pay for these raises.
In the last five years many workers in the private sector lost their jobs and others had their hours reduced. If you had a job you were concerned if you would be the next employee to be laid off or have your hours reduced. If you owned a business you tried to survive and many did not survive. Then there are the thousands of retirees who live on fixed incomes and their saving accounts.
Our economy is showing signs of improvement. The real estate market for new construction, existing homes and condominiums is improving. Prices are increasing, which accounts for much of the increased property values. If the county, the school board and cities in Okaloosa County increase property taxes they are going to send a strong negative message to potential investors and people considering moving here, not to mention businesses that might relocate here. And that message will not produce more property taxes; if anything it might lower property values and result in lower property taxes being paid.
My recommendation and request to our elected leaders is simple: Let capitalism and free enterprise work. It will naturally produce more tax revenue.
If you feel the need for salary increases is so great, make it a high enough priority that it can be paid from the approximately 1.9 percent increase in property tax revenue you will collect due to the increased appraised value. Revisit the projects in the budget, lower the scope of some, delay some or spread them out over multiple years. Save some money, but do not increase the millage rate.
To my fellow property owners, please express your opinion to our elected officials on this important matter. The final decisions will be made when the City Council meets for its final budget hearing Sept. 17 at 6 p.m. at the City Hall Annex (next to the Destin Dog Park).
Larry Hines is a Destin resident, a former Destin City Councilor and a retired Air Force fighter pilot.