Funding Local Services

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It’s the last day of September and that can only mean one thing. We’ve seen the last of Public Budget Hearings for the next 11 months. Each governmental taxing district must hold two Public Hearings, usually in September, on their proposed tax rate and budget for the next fiscal year. County, Schools, Town, Fire, Library, Mosquito Control – each and every one. We’ve covered about seven of them in the last month to give our readers a handle on how their tax money would be spent.

An interesting observation that we make every September is the appearance of new folks at these meetings, which is good – that’s what they’re designed for. But we often wonder – where have they been for the past 12 months? We wish they attended a few more meetings during the year. Our council and boards do important work year round. Running a town, fire or mosquito district or library is complex work, difficult to distill down into the brief summary provided at the outset of many budget hearings. No wonder people don’t understand the need for what’s in the budget!

There are always the folks who want no taxes or who think that a taxing district can provide Cadillac services on a Schwinn budget. Fortunately, most taxpayers are more realistic than that.

Our fire district, for instance, postponed capital purchases for the last several years to help balance the budget as property values dropped. Property values are climbing again and those capital needs haven’t gone away, they’ve just become more urgent as repair bills mount. Those capital needs are more evident if you follow the district throughout the year rather than just 1 or 2 meetings in September.

Meanwhile our Town had multiple requests from residents to improve services, and if that meant a small tax increase, that was fine. Yet the council voted to keep the tax rate the same as last year, which will mean a very modest increase in tax income for the Town. Budgets were trimmed to bare bones and it remains to be seen if residents will be happy with the bare bones services that will provide.

An article in today’s paper describes a new policy at Bay Oaks, or at least a policy that will now be strictly enforced. Programs must pay for themselves. If residents are accustomed to signing up for programs after the deadline, they’re going to be surprised this year, because registration deadlines will be rigidly enforced. If there aren’t enough participants signed up by deadline to cover the costs of the program instructor, the program will be cancelled. There’s no money in the budget to tide it over hoping that there are late registrations. We hope Island families are listening.

Who’s Paying Taxes?

Who’s paying the taxes that fund our town, fire, mosquito and library services? A majority of our ad valorem taxes in the Town of Fort Myers Beach are paid by non-homesteaded property owners. Based on 2015 property values, homesteaded (full-time resident homeowners) property accounts for only 16.4% of all taxable value in our town, the other 83.6% of taxable value and therefore taxes flow from commercial property owners (9.7%) and non-homesteaded (seasonal or investment) owners (73.9%).

Sometimes non-homesteaded property owners resent paying taxes here because they don’t vote here and have no say in how things are run. This resentment is stoked when they hear elected officials speak as if their input is unimportant because they don’t live here full time. Or as is often heard on this Island – the length of your residency here equals the value of your opinion to some.

Other communities have solved that dilemma by working with the state to allow non-homesteaded property owners to vote in local elections. Twelve states allow non-resident homeowners and business owners to vote in local elections; two more allow local jurisdictions to decide if they’ll allow it. With Florida’s huge seasonal population, it’s a long shot to even have such a thing be considered here. It would certainly turn local politics on its ear. That 16% likes things just the way they are and right now, they hold all the cards or votes. But it is something to think about.

Meanwhile, those who own property here but don’t live here full time should brush up on the services they, their renters and their property are provided by our town and special districts. We realize that it would be perfect if we could pay for services only when we need them, but the cost of that would be outrageously high. Special district costs are spread across the district’s residents based on property value. Some districts have switched to an assessment fee – a flat fee paid every year per property. While few districts in our area have gone this direction, the assessment fee has become popular with towns, counties and fire districts elsewhere as a cost-effective path to financial stability.

As we wrap up budget season, we all should be aware of what our taxes pay for. And it wouldn’t hurt to drop in on a meeting a few times a year to keep up with what’s happening in your local taxing districts. They’re all open to the public.

 

Missy Layfield