India was infamous for its caste system, which condemned people to the social level they were born into. Medieval Europe had its serfs and nobility. Most cultures have some sort of social stratification that, if not officially endorsed, is at least recognized by members of that culture.
Here on Fort Myers Beach we have snowbirds, locals, residents, business owners, renters, visitors, property owners, taxpayers and registered voters to name a few. You could say we have our own special caste system.
We’ve made the point in this space that we’re all Islanders, whether we are here year round or for a few weeks, whether we commute to the island for work or have lived here for 50 years, whether we own a business here or rent an apartment. No one is more important or worthy of respect than anyone else. It seems not everyone agrees with us.
Our Town government has traditionally led the way in the acknowledgement of all segments of our Island family, by their willingness to listen to all. However, some Islanders are now feeling that they are not as equal as others. And that uncomfortable feeling of exclusion has been growing.
Fed by multiple comments on the primacy of long-time local residents from the Council dais, public comments and campaign rhetoric, non-resident homeowners and business owners are feeling that their voice doesn’t matter here anymore. That is a disappointment.
Our Island has always been famous for its friendly atmosphere. Those who live here, even if just for a few weeks or months a year, have always felt like it’s home. Were we to lose that “home” feeling our Island provides, we will have lost far more than tourist dollars, we will have lost our Island’s soul.
Maybe it’s a result of an election campaign where the emphasis is placed on voters.
“Local business” is warned this month by Council member Summer Stockton in the Fort Myers Beach Chamber of Commerce newsletter to beware of “self-serving outside investors.” She calls on local business leaders to ‘engage and support the visions of the townspeople.” She also calls on townspeople to protect and support local businesses.
Yet, nearly every effort to boost local business with special events, and yes, that is one of the ways to boost local business, has been met with resistance recently. Sound, traffic, blocked roads – these are all part of boosting local business. If you can’t live with occasional inconveniences, than you aren’t seriously interested in boosting local business. Or supporting the employees that work at those businesses.
We know who is allowed to vote, but who provides the money to run our Town? Who are the taxpayers?
Those of us who write a check to the Tax Collector once a year are definitely taxpayers. Renters also pay taxes, indirectly through rent payments. Most annual renters are eligible to vote here, so they have a voice at the ballot box.
But property owners? Not so much.
Looking at the taxable value of Island property, because that is what determines the amount of taxes paid, the total taxable value of property in our Town is about $2.86 billion. That is the base that provides the money to run our Town.
Who pays the most taxes? If one assumes that taxable value is directly related to taxes, then non-resident residential property owners and businesses combine to pay 83.6% of the taxes in our Town. Surprised?
Residential property makes up about 90% of all taxable value with commercial property representing about 10%. Real estate held by churches and government is not subject to property taxes and utilities hold a tiny percentage of land.
Of all residential property value, how much is held by full time residents (voters)? Assuming that full time homeowners would have a homestead exemption on their property, it was easy to pull that from the statistics provided by the Lee County Property Appraiser’s Office. Visit bit.ly/FMBtax to see for yourself.
Homesteaded residential homeowners hold 16.36% of the taxable property in our Town and we assume pay about the same percentage of Town taxes.
The remainder is held by non-homestead residential property owners. They hold 73.93% of the taxable value property in our Town.
Some of that property is rental property but a good chunk of it is used strictly as a second home by owners.
These people who are responsible for 4.5 times more taxes than homesteaded homeowners are, deserve a voice in Town government. While other states and communities have negotiated local voting rights for second homeowners, that seems unlikely in Florida.
The more logical, more inclusive answer is that our Island’s representatives recognize the contributions made by non-resident homeowners and businesses and keep their concerns and opinions in mind when making decisions that affect all Islanders.
The campaign is over, it’s time to govern and that requires listening to all Islanders.