Crist order may help spill-affected taxpayers
TALLAHASSEE - Gov. Charlie Crist signed an executive order today aimed at helping owners of homes and other properties devalued by the Gulf of Mexico oil spill to seek compensation for those losses and for the inflated tax bills expected to result. Crist acted a day after the Florida House adjourned a special legislative session without taking a vote on his ballot proposal to ban offshore drilling in state waters. Crist ordered property appraisers in 26 affected counties to provide at taxpayers' request unofficial interim assessments showing how much their property has been devalued by the spill. "An interim assessment will give property owners the documentation they need to hold BP accountable," Crist said at a news conference.BP's Deepwater Horizon well exploded April 20, causing a spill that has stained some Panhandle beaches and set back the state's tourism and real estate industries. Property owners can use the interim assessments to seek compensation from BP and other responsible parties for lost value, Crist said. The documents also would help in claiming rebates for the difference between actual tax bills, which are based on Jan. 1 assessments, and what they would have been using lower post-spill values. "It's definitely a step in the right direction," said Santa Rosa County Property Appraiser Greg Brown, but he added, "We've still got a ways to go." Brown and Escambia County Property Appraiser Chris Jones, whose counties have been hardest hit by the spill, had asked Crist and legislative leaders to expand the special session to consider tax relief similar to that offered following a series of hurricanes in 2004. During a special session that year, lawmakers passed legislation giving partial tax rebates to owners of homes made unlivable by the storms. Lawmakers appropriated $20 million to pay for the rebates. Jones said Crist's order does not provide immediate tax relief. "It's basically a public service," he said. House Speaker Larry Cretul, R-Ocala, and Senate President Jeff Atwater, R-North Palm Beach, are planning another special session in September - after the deadline for ballot issues - to consider tax relief and other spill-related matters. Crist said he also supports giving tax rebates that would be paid for by BP. "Anything that we could do to help these people who are struggling right now, any of those good ideas are something they ought to be willing to consider," Crist said. The spill has scared off buyers and that's driving down property values. Ron Romano, a real estate broker in Santa Rosa Beach, said sales at his firm have come to a standstill after a first quarter with sales of $65 million. "We have gotten zero since this spill," Romano said. "Nobody will buy this real estate until it is stopped." Romano was among dozens who rallied in Tallahassee on Tuesday in favor of putting the drilling ban on the November ballot. Less than an hour after the session began, the Republican-controlled House killed the proposal by voting largely on party lines to adjourn without considering it. Crist, who recently quit the GOP to run for the U.S. Senate as an independent, had called the session for the sole purpose of taking up the state constitutional amendment. The Senate Select Committee on Florida's Economy chaired by Sen. Don Gaetz already has begun hearings on other spill-related proposals. Cretul on Tuesday created six House panels to also work on recommendations. "Now the real work begins," said Gaetz, R-Niceville. "The political theater is over." Both sides accused the other of playing politics over the drilling ban. Gaetz said another tax alternative would be to push back payment deadlines. Taxes are due in April but those who pay early get discounts with the biggest savings in November. Putting off full-payment discounts until February or March would help businesses facing cash flow problems due to the spill, Gaetz said. Other proposals would enable the state to help individuals, businesses and local governments file claims against BP, provide additional dollars for testing needed to prove Florida seafood is safe to eat and redirect tourism trust fund dollars to promote the beleaguered Panhandle. Also under consideration are tougher penalties for pollution violations and blocking unemployment compensation premium increases for employers who laid off workers due to the spill.