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Taxing times

By Staff | Sep 26, 2009

The promise of sunshine and cheap, easy living have drawn many to Florida over the years.
But economic turmoil has turned that combination on its ear for some, offering more sunshine than affordable living.
With tax bills arriving in late October, people all over Lee county, and the state, are preparing to lay out some serious coin for their properties.
But, there are some people who are wondering if their tax burdens have gotten worse during the economic fall of the last two years.
According to a survey released by the Tax Foundation, a non-profit, non- partisan think tank in Washington D.C., they might be right.
Florida ranked 21 out of 50 states for highest median property taxes paid on homes in 2008.
Florida consistently ranked in the high 20s between 2004-08, the period of information collected by Tax Foundation, reaching no higher than 20th in 2007.
For 2008, Floridians paid an average of $1,860 in property taxes.
The median property tax rate steadily increased during the four-year period of the survey. In 2004, Floridians were paying $1,385, on average, in property taxes.
Of the 775 total counties nationwide whose data was included in the survey, Lee County ranked 295th in 2008 with an median property tax of $1,741.
Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach, Martin, Collier, and Sarasota counties all ranked higher in 2008.
With the Cape Coral city council having set the budget and millage rate on Wednesday, Cape property owners can expect to pay 60 percent more in terms of property tax rate for 2009.
Though council reduced overall spending by more than 8 percent, the resulting operating budget of $120 million left some city council members wondering if there wasn’t more that could have been done to ease the burden on taxpayers in one of the hardest hit areas of the recession.
“We should have handled the entire thing differently,” said Councilmember Pete Brandt. “I said we should have taken the roll back rate and found a budget within that boundary. If we had been doing that since 2002, we would be in a lot better situation than we are now.”
With property values plunging, foreclosures and abandonments rising, city revenue has decreased dramatically in the last two years.
Taxes are now based on these lower valuations, meaning it takes a higher tax rate to raise the same amount of revenue.
Last year’s millage rate of 4.768, or about $4.77 per $1,000 in taxable valuation, was helped in part by city leaders deciding to use reserves to make up for the shortfall.
This year was different, as council leaned away from reserves, proposing to nearly double the millage rate initially, which nearly doubled the ire of taxpayers throughout the city, before the rate was reduced upon final passage.
Councilmember Bill Deile said the council needs to start looking toward next year, but added that it was unrealistic of people who felt council could keep the millage the same and still operate at the same level.
“There was no way we could get there,” Deile said, adding, “That (4.7) included using reserves, so really the rate was over 5.”
Council set the millage rate tentatively at 8.8 before working that number down to 7.9702, where it was eventually set.
City council often blamed the millage on assessed property values and the Save Our Homes amendment which caps increases on owner-occupied homes, something that kept property tax levies much lower for some during the real estate boom years.
Property Appraiser Ken Wilkinson brushed off criticism, touting his office’s accountability and openness to rebuttal.
He added that it’s not unusual for cities to lay blame at the feet of the property appraiser, it’s merely “unfortunate.”
“Their responsibility is to set their budget, not us,” Wilkinson said. “To my knowledge, no one puts a gun to a taxing authority to set their millage. I don’t want to tell them how to do their business, and I don’t want them to tell me how to do mine.”
Nationwide, the east coast ranked consistently higher than many other parts of the country.
New Jersey, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and New York make up the top five states in median property taxes being paid.
The southern United States, on average, paid less in property tax in 2008, as Arkansas, Mississippi, West Virginia, Alabama, and Louisiana rounding out the bottom 50.
In Lee County, tax bills are due by April 1, though there are some discounts available the earlier people pay.
For those who pay in November, a 4 percent discount is available, 4 percent in December, 2 percent in January and 1 percent in February.
For more information paying property taxes, contact the Tax Collector’s office at 533-6000.