Gov. Scott surprised by special taxing districts

Manatee County supports 62 with little state oversight; special study continues

Herald/TimesTallahassee BureauJuly 15, 2013 

TALLAHASSEE -- Gov. Rick Scott sounded determined a year and a half ago when he demanded a thorough review of obscure special taxing districts that have the power to "tax, spend and incur debt at the expense of Florida taxpayers."

Scott was surprised so many appointees who never have to face voters had the power to tax, so he signed an order Jan. 11, 2012, for his budget experts to scrutinize nearly 1,700 districts -- including 62 in Manatee County -- and whether they serve "a legitimate public interest."

Eighteen months later, the districts are still thriving, as Scott's tough talk meets the reality that special districts have clout.

Across Florida, special taxing districts levy taxes to provide services such as fire protection, flood and mosquito control, children's services and community development.

Manatee County special taxing districts include 36 community development districts, nine fire control districts, six community redevelopment agencies, two housing authorities, two parks and recreation districts, and one of each of the following: civic center authority, downtown development authority, housing finance authority, law library district, mosquito control district, port authority and soil and water conservation district.

Some districts are controlled by elected officials and others by political appointees, many chosen by Scott and his predecessors, and were created to pay for roads, street lights and other infrastructure.

Special taxing districts helped Walt Disney Co. redesign the character of central Florida and enabled developer Gary Morse to build The Villages, a golfing Mecca and mega-retirement community close to major highways in three Florida counties.

To Scott, some special taxing districts are better than others.

"Gosh. Let's take The Villages as an example. They've gone from scratch to 91,000 people," Scott said. "People love to live there. They're buying into those amenities."

Scott said he sees no problem with giving special taxing authority to help The Villages become a magnet for retirees -- many of whom vote Republican -- by financing infrastructure through community development

districts with power to issue bonds, backed by assessments charged to Villages homeowners.

Morse is a major sup-porter of the RepublicanParty of Florida and Scott. The developer has contributed $100,000 to Scott's re-election committee, Let's Get to Work, and The Villages has given another $100,000.

So far, Scott's study has barely scratched the surface, with a study of the 18 elected mosquito control districts stretching from the Keys to Walton County in the Panhandle. The study said while mosquito control is handled by many counties, the districts' independence has encouraged innovation and cited Pasco County as a good example.

The study also said the mosquito districts' property tax collections have declined 43 percent since 2006 when adjusted for inflation.

A spokesman for Scott said the special tax district study is continuing and it has been harder to collect detailed data on every type of special district than had been anticipated.

Scott's wariness about special taxing districts resurfaced when he vetoed three bills recently to expand powers of small special taxing districts in Hendry, Indian River and Lee counties. All three bills had broad local support and had passed the Legislature unanimously.

Scott, who's seeking a second term and emphasizing holding down the cost of living, said the bills would create "duplicative taxation" on families and give districts too much power.

"It's disappointing, but I see his position," said state Rep. Debbie Mayfield, R-Vero Beach, who sponsored one of the bills. "Next year, we need to structure the bill differently."

Mayfield's House Bill 1009 sought to spur development of 27,000 acres in Fellsmere, a small town near Vero Beach, by providing services that are not local government priorities.

Attorney Christopher Lyon, a lobbyist for two of thethree bills, said the goal of House Bill 855 was to build a park in Palm Beach County that neither the city northe county wanted topay for although residents had raised more than $100,000 toward the park's construction.

"We felt it was whatthe residents wanted," Lyon said. "There was really noother option. This isn't something that the district dreamed up to give itself more power."

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