Tax debates at every level of government can be complex, and Key Biscayne, with a mixture of tax sources and spending categories, is no exception. Here is some context.
Every year, some push for lower taxes as a guiding principle, even if it means risking service cuts. Others push for expanded services and amenities to meet perceived resident needs. Key Biscayne (population 15,000) is often compared to two other cities in Miami-Dade County. Coral Gables (pop. 49,000) and Pinecrest (pop. 18,000). But as with any comparison, there are many caveats, and it’s important to compare apples with apples.
More importantly, the comparison is also a good example of why just looking at the ‘millage rate,’ can lead to confusing results. To get a real picture of taxes and spending, it can be helpful to focus on the actual tax dollars collected, where they are coming from, and which services are provided. It’s also good to remember two other things about property taxes. First, they are a form of ‘wealth tax’ and quite different from sales taxes, income taxes, and user fees. Key Biscayne gets income —directly and indirectly— from all four forms of taxes. The second thing is that in Florida, they are not uniform.
We’ll come back to tax philosophy in a moment, but let’s focus on Tuesday’s vote, which is all about property taxes, the largest source of tax revenue for the Village government. Some 71% of Village dollars come from property tax, which is paid by property owners and passed along to renters and in the case of commercial properties, consumers. The figures below are from the Village’s chief financial officer.
Key Biscayne and Pinecrest are very close in size. Pinecrest’s millage rate is 2.35, lower than Manager Steve Williamson’s proposed 3.20. But Pinecrest’s total taxes are higher than Key Biscayne’s, an average of $1,714 vs $1,565 (per $100K in taxable value, annually).
There are several factors, but a very big one is that Pinecrest does not have its own fire rescue department. So, people there have to pay a hefty Miami-Dade County fire tax. This fire tax adds 2.4 mills to the annual bill. So, combined with all the other mandatory types of taxes, Pinecrest is paying a total of 18.0 mills, while Key Biscayne is only paying 16.4, the lowest in Miami-Dade County.
Now let’s look at Coral Gables, which does have its own fire-rescue service. Its municipal rate is 5.5 mills and its total tax rate is 18.8 mills. And indeed, people there pay more in total taxes, $1,788 per $100K of taxable value, on average. Coral Gables also provides, some would argue, a richer suite of municipal services and amenities than does Key Biscayne.
But there’s another important element of the picture that hasn’t been mentioned: exemptions.
Remember the different types of taxes? A big difference between cities lies in knowing who qualifies for property tax exemptions. Florida voters have added language to the state constitution banning an income tax (we’ll ignore $6 million in federal grants coming to Key Biscayne for now), but these same voters have also mandated that homeowners get breaks to stay in their homes. There are several exemptions, but the Homestead and Save Our Homes provisions mean that the assessed, or taxable value is dramatically lower for people who have lived in their homes a long time. So that means two identical homes can and do pay very different total taxes — and that is by design.
When exemptions are added into the mix, it changes the numbers again. Both Pinecrest and Coral Gables benefit from exemptions more than Key Biscayne. That is to say, fewer owners in Key Biscayne qualify for all these state-mandated property tax breaks. Key Biscayne properties are at 86% of median market value, while Coral Gables and Pinecrest are both at about 69%. The higher the percentage, the more lopsided the tax base in terms of those owners not benefitting from exemptions. There have been changes in recent years, but the biggest exemptions are still only available to individual owner-occupants who are U.S. citizens or permanent residents (“green card” holders).
|Median Market Value||Median Taxable Value|
|Key Biscayne||$ 757,200||$ 653,400|
|Coral Gables||$ 602,975||$ 418,158|
|Pinecrest||$ 825,819||$ 558,075|
The exemption landscape is not something that’s on tonight’s Village Council agenda, but it is a behind-the-scenes driver of Key Biscayne tax debate. Communities with a higher proportion of taxpayers who don’t get these big exemptions often chafe at paying “more,” even though the rules are uniform. And the split also speaks to bigger issues like affordable housing, density, and the rent-vs-buy choice people make for housing.
The new Census has told us that Key Biscayne is getting more populous and more dense, a micro-urban center surrounded by parks. Affluent and educated, those residents want services. Some have argued that this population surge (up 20% in 10 years) is temporary. And that is a possibility — especially if sea level rise changes the housing market (it already is) and population has hit its peak and starts to decline. How good is your crystal ball?
The question, for many, in the end, is a value proposition. Are people getting the services they want at a reasonable cost, or not? Are big investments worth it? Some believe the government should provide minimal services and let people pay their own way, instead of doing and paying for things as a community. That is a different argument than “efficiency,” which is another term that’s often bandied about in tax debates without clear definition.
These are some of the themes and questions to watch in tonight’s debate.
Tony Winton is the editor-in-chief of the Key Biscayne Independent and president of Miami Fourth Estate, Inc. He worked previously at The Associated Press for three decades winning multiple Edward R. Murrow awards. He was president of the News Media Guild, a journalism union, for 10 years. Born in Chicago, he is a graduate of Columbia University. His interests are photography and technology, sailing, cooking, and science fiction.