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Florida Districts Seeking Added Taxation Authority

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Several Florida school districts faced with budget cuts are bucking the state's school-funding system by asking courts for increased local power over tax rates and pushing for a slice of impact fees on builders.

Initial efforts for greater taxing authority on the part of districts were launched before a souring economy forced program and personnel cuts across much of the state. But observers said that the distress created by stagnant school revenues has spurred many districts to consider joining the movement.

Wayne Blanton, executive director of the Florida School Board Association, said many districts are looking for any new strategy to raise funds.

"Really, the reason these things are being filed is because the legislature has not responded to the financial needs of the districts," he said.

In June, three southwest Florida counties won a ruling from a state circuit court that strips the legislature of its power to tell local jurisdictions where to set their property-tax rates. The only limitation on local authority to determine rates, the court said, is a constitutional cap of $1 per $1,000 of assessed value.

Officials in Sarasota, Manatee, and DeSoto counties have not acted on the decision, which has been appealed. But last week officials in Alachua County filed a similar suit claiming that school boards should have the power to raise taxes.

Property-tax rates set by the legislature are a key element of the state's school-finance program. The locally generated revenues are pooled at the state level, along with a portion of sales-tax revenues, and then returned to districts under a formula designed to reduce local property-wealth inequities.

State education officials argue that any change in local tax rates would upset the state's efforts to equalize local school funding.

Paying for Growth

Meanwhile, a ruling by the state supreme court in April has encouraged a number of districts to seek a share of impact fees. The court ruled that the impact fees, which traditionally have been used to fund roads, sewers, and water projects, can also be applied to schools.

Since then, 18 districts have either acted or are preparing to ask county commissioners for a slice of impact fees on new construction.

School officials say they are forced to pursue such alternative finance strategies as the state's student population continues to swell.

"Growth does not pay for itself in any way, shape, or form," said Beebe White, a school-board member in Volusia County, which is one of the systems seeking impact-fee revenues.

Volusia officials are pursuing an impact-fee rate that would cover the district's site-acquisition and construction budgets in coming years, according to Al Williams, chairman of the school board.

Ms. White said that the board's toughest decision is not whether to ask county officials to impose the tax, but rather what the rate should be.

"The dilemma we're going to be facing is coming up with a figure that will help pay for growth and at the same time not make the price of housing too high," she said.

Mr. Blanton said that, at a time when districts are struggling to make ends meet and further state-aid cuts are likely, the funding alternatives are a source of optimism.

"At the growth rate that Florida is going," he said, "impact fees alone could be worth millions of dollars to most every district in the state."

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