Florida does a much better job providing services to taxpayers.
Three years ago this summer I moved to Sarasota from California. It was a big lifestyle change going from a big house on a ranch property in the Sierra Nevada mountains, far from everything, to a small house in a beach town, close to everything.
We considered a lot of states and cities in them for our new home. Florida was attractive because of its low taxes and relatively less intrusive government. We fell in love with Sarasota over several visits because of its beauty, great cultural amenities, nice people, and, well the list of reasons it too long. And because of New College, but more on that later.
But actually living here was a real eye opener! There are so many ways Sarasota and Florida are even better than we expected. I thought it would be fun to share some of my experiences and comparisons and celebrate where we all live.
It’s one thing to see that Sarasota is beautiful and loaded with cultural amenities, it’s another to experience the quantity and quality of it in day to day life. From glorious Siesta Beach to funky Myakka State Park, we are still discovering the natural beauty here. And from sublime Asolo Reparatory Theatre to homey Farmer’s Market, the calendar is packed with high culture theater, opera, dance, all manner of shows at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, killer art museums and gallery events, speakers from all over the world, classes at Lifelong Learning Academy. Whew! I can barely find time to try out the golf courses in the area.
On a more mundane, but important level, we knew taxes were going to be lower in Florida. Sure property taxes are slightly higher —1.06 percent in Florida vs 0.81 percent in California. But in Florida we get very detailed letters explaining our property taxes and where the money goes. In California you just get a bill with no clue where it goes. And in Florida I pay no income tax while in California it was over 10 percent, and sales taxes in Florida are just 6 percent compared to 8.25 percent in California. Gas taxes and heavy regulation make driving expensive in California — the highest gas prices in the nation at $3; Florida is $2.31. As well, in California all manner of special fees and taxes are just part of life while my tax bills are much simpler in Florida.
Those lower taxes do mean Florida spends less: $3,803 per person in 2016 compared to $6,774 in California. What we didn’t anticipate is how much better a job Florida does at providing services to taxpayers in spite of spending so much less money! The workings of government in Florida are not only cheaper and better, but also vastly more transparent. We have been amazed by the contrast.
Take getting a driver’s license, vehicle registration and plates, for example. The California Department of Motor Vehicles is the poster child of hellish bureaucracy. DMV offices are harsh and rather grimy institutional-looking places, with employees behind glass windows, moody and outdated computers, long lines, bad air conditioning, and rows of cheap plastic chairs for your literally hours-long wait. Once you’ve completed the paperwork, your driver’s license or car plates come in the mail six to eight weeks later. Probably. Maybe.
The contrast with Sarasota was shocking. The county tax collector’s office is a pleasant place, looking more like a hotel lobby than a government office waiting room; our wait in a comfortable upholstered chair was barely long enough to open a magazine. Rather than standing in line at a series of windows — one each for driver’s license and vehicle registration and plates, we sat across a desk from a nice lady who quickly processed our paper work, took our pictures on the spot, printed out our driver’s licenses and handed it to us — and our vehicle plates as well! My wife and I were so astonished by this we told everyone we knew, emailed our friends, and still talk about it today. What a contrast.
The contrast is sharp out on the roads, too. For many years the nonprofit think tank I work for has published a report comparing spending on and conditions of state highway systems. A few years ago we examined 20 years of data to rank the overall spending efficiency of state highway departments. Florida ranked 11th in the nation, California 50th! Heck, our most recent report showed California spends $47,487 per lane-mile on administration of the highway department, while Florida spends less than half that — $22,514. In spite of all its spending, California currently ranks 45th on the condition of rural interstates and 48th on urban interstates, while Florida ranks seventh and 12th in those metrics.
We enjoy these smooth Florida roads.
Hurricane Irma brought home to us how much better the customer service at Florida Power & Light Co. is than at the two big private utilities in California. The cost of having a grid impervious to storms is very high, though as Matt Walsh wrote in these pages, it may be cheaper than rebuilding it after each severe storm. Still, FPL’s preparations for the storm were impressive, and its effort to restore power were successful and amazingly fast, considering the whole state was effected. They could not concentrate their efforts in a few counties as they can with most hurricanes that hit the state. Just as important, the friendliness and helpfulness of FPL staff when I called them or talked to line workers in my neighborhood was impressive. A sharp contrast to the robo-service I always got on the phone in California, and the surly line workers I encountered.
Finally, I want to talk about colleges. When we were shopping for where to move from California, our daughters were 16 and 17, so college shopping was a big part of it. We were simply blown away by the quality of the students and the education offered by Florida’s public universities. Florida’s university system offer a great education, as does the California system, but at a much more reasonable cost.
Our daughters chose New College, so in our case, tuition and living expenses are about $19,000 per year, while at University of California Santa Barbara, where my daughters had been looking, they are $30,000. And the difference in various fees in California adds thousands more dollars to that gap. We are overjoyed that now they are both attending there. You don’t need me to repeat all the stats about New College — it is a very high performing school that rocks the national rankings.
I’ve gone on too long and only scratched the surface of ways Florida makes California look bad. Suffice it say we are very happy with our choice.
Adrian Moore is vice president of Reason and lives in Sarasota.