By Scott Myers, Contributor
The current teacher pay issue in Hillsborough County is just an ugly symptom of how screwed up the county’s and the state of Florida’s priorities are. What is crystal clear is that public education is not very important as far as the powers-to-be are concerned.
Consider these realities:
• The tourist development tax, also known as the bed tax, which will provide revenues of over $30 million for Hillsborough County in 2017, and over $800 million for the state of Florida, is constrained by law to be used for only touristy things (e.g. creation of more low-paying hospitality service jobs) and/or enriching one-percenters like the Glazers, Jeff Vinik, and Stu Sternberg by paying for new stadiums and/or making improvements to existing stadiums.
• In 2016, the Tampa Sports Authority, Hillsborough County Commission, Hillsborough County Aviation Authority board of directors, Tampa City Council, and the HCC board of trustees approved $26 million of public money for unobligated and unneeded improvements to the already best Major League Baseball spring training facility in the state – Steinbrenner Field, which, by the way, is for the sole benefit of the richest MLB franchise – the New York Yankees.
• The Tampa Bay Rays are offering to pay just $150 million of an expected $800 million cost for a new stadium, be it in St. Petersburg or Tampa. That this proposal was even put on the table by Stu Sternberg is very disturbing with its implied expectation that the taxpayer will pick up the other $650 million, not to mention the cost overruns.
• Hillsborough County gave away $12.5 million to the Tampa Bay Lightning for unobligated improvements to Amalie Arena in 2015.
• Hillsborough County is about to give away $61 million more to the Tampa Bay Lightning for unobligated improvements to Amalie Arena in 2018.
• Look at the endowment deficiencies, shown below, of our major universities in the greater Tampa Bay and Orlando region as compared with other comparable metro areas such as Austin, TX and Raleigh, NC. And please keep in mind that the North Carolina’s population is just half of Florida’s!
College endowment ($billions)
NC subset total
U of Texas
TX subset total
U of Florida
FL subset Total
And yet Tampa Bay “leaders” feel they can compete with metro areas that value education over sports subsidies and other forms of corporate cronyism.
So what could have been done concerning the $17 million shortfall in funds that was needed to pay the one-third of the Hillsborough County public school teachers their promised $4,000 per year raise? There is no easy answer. The Hillsborough School Board does not have the autonomy to authorize what would have been a very modest property tax increase to cover this expense. How modest you might ask?
There are 569,000 housing units and 35,000 businesses in the county which add up to 604,000 taxing entities. $17 million/604,000 = $28 per taxing entity. Our guess is that the average housing unit increase would have been somewhat less than $28 as the average business unit increase would have been substantially higher.
But regrettably, the tweaking and calibrating of the millage rates of the two components of the local property tax that go toward funding public education – ‘school-local’ (for maintenance costs and debt service) and ‘school-state’ (for teachers’ salaries, classroom supplies, etc.) are dictated by the state legislature.
As the graph below shows, these millage rates have been dramatically reduced over the last 10 years or so, even as property assessment values declined sharply during that same time period. The 2017 ‘school-local’ millage rate is 18% lower than the 2007 rate. The 2017 ‘school-state’ millage rate is 23% lower than the 2011 rate.
To lend personal context to this, let’s look at school property tax payments for some selected Hillsborough County residents for the 2008-2017 period. We see that Mayor Bob Buckhorn is now paying 25% less for 2017 as compared to 2008.
Looking at my school property tax payments for the 2007-2017 period, we see that I am now paying 35% less for 2017 as compared to 2008.
Properties of other folks that I have analyzed show significant reductions as well:
• Victor Crist – 57%
• Ken Hagan – 55%
• Stacy White – 47%
• Joe Henderson – 42%
• Jon Gruden – 24%
• Pat Kemp – 26%
• Sandy Murman – 16%
It is clear that the state legislature’s ‘malevolent attention’ to the school property tax millage rates has done severe harm to our public education system in Hillsborough County and throughout the state. Now I get it that when homes are sold, the assessments immediately reflect the current market value of the homes and any accrued benefit of lower taxes by the possibly previous long-tenured homesteaded owners disappear, which means more taxes being assessed on those homes going forward.
But on the other side of the ledger, because of the county’s rapid growth – from 1.17 million in 2007 to 1.38 million in 2017, there have been huge demands to build new schools because of increasing enrollment, and of course the total maintenance cost for all schools increase year over year.
Bottom line: the state legislature has screwed up public education with this lack of funding, big time! We can’t pay our teachers raises that are promised, we can’t fix A/C units in the schools, broken down buses are the norm, summer school hours get slashed every year, etc.
So what can be done to avoid these kind of public education budget shortfalls going forward?
• How about using part, or better yet, all of the bed tax receipts ($30 million collected this year in Hillsborough County) to directly benefit our teachers and children instead of continuing the overemphasis on increasing tourism?
• How about never giving another dime of public money to fund sports stadiums, including spring training facilities, for professional sports franchise owners? How about using 100% of that public money, whatever amount it may be, for only education needs?
• How about those who are responsible for crafting the Hillsborough County school district budget be vigilant, and when needed, advocate for modest property tax increases?
• How about all the elected leaders in Hillsborough County use their ‘bully pulpit’ and unite with other counties’ leaders to lobby the state legislature to stop doing ‘evil’ to public education.
• And how about inventing a new source of funds for education by increasing the sales tax on vehicles from 6% to whatever the prevailing local tax is – e.g. 7% for Hillsborough county.
The yearly sales tax for new and used vehicles in Florida is $2.968 billion. which at 6%, translates to $49.5 billion in sales. A 1% hike in the sales tax would yield $495 million additional revenue. With 7% of the state’s total population, Hillsborough county would collect an additional $35 million per year with this new tax vehicle.
It is long overdue for Hillsborough County and the entire state of Florida to start treating educating our children, from pre-K through college, as a number one priority.