Lee County property tax rate going down

September 21, 2007
Author: By Ryan Hiraki

Taxpayers likely will see a modest savings next year on their Lee County tax bills as commissioners decided Thursday night on spending cuts.

The tax rate dropped from $5.89 per $1,000 of taxable property value to $5.44. That means the owner of a $225,000 home, after the $25,000 homestead exemption, will save $90 if his property value remains the same.

The new tax rate will support a $949 million budget that takes effect on Oct. 1, the start of the 2007-08 fiscal year.

"We're trying our best to provide services for the rapidly growing community," said Commissioner Ray Judah, referring to the county population jump of 30,000 people last year.

Adopting the overall tax rate required four votes: one for three county-wide rates, and one each for the library, hazards and the unincorporated county rate that residents who live outside Lee's five cities pay. Every vote was 3-2 with Commissioners Brian Bigelow and Frank Mann dissenting, except for the hazard rate, which was 4-1 with only Bigelow opposed. Bigelow and Mann urged bigger cuts.

The tax cut Thursday followed a decision this summer from the Legislature to reform property taxes.

The county was directed to ensure that spending levels in the new fiscal year match spending in 2006-07. And, after getting that total, commissioners were told to cut another 7 percent, a rate that varied among local governments, depending on their spending during the last six years.

Only a supermajority, or a vote of four commissioners, could override the state legislation demand for the 7 percent cut. And only a unanimous vote against the state mandate would have allowed elected leaders to maintain or raise the tax rate, a vote that would have been a bold move in Republican-dominated Lee County.

The all-GOP board had received criticism from the county's Republican Party for spending too much, which raised questions about the relationship between the board and its host party. (Commissioners Bigelow, Judah, Mann and Tammy Hall have been registered Democrats in the past, according to voter records.)

In the end, neither option to override the Legislature was considered. But the cuts come with consequences.

Lee County Sheriff Mike Scott got an 11 percent increase in his budget, not the 16 percent he requested, so now he says he will phase in new staff over two years for the jail and justice center opening late next year. But he will not be able to add 12 deputies for road patrol, something that could help address the 750-plus business burglaries, robberies and construction site thefts this year in Lehigh Acres.

"In what I would view as an ideal perfect world, we'd have more road patrol," Scott said. "But you can't cut and add at the same time."

There is also less money for emergencies such as hurricanes, for the library, for the day-to-day operations of the county needed for roads and sewers, building and zoning. Performance-based pay raises dropped too, from 4 percent to 2 percent, and 28 vacant positions were eliminated.

The Conservation 2020 budget, used to buy and preserve land, was the only tax rate that remained the same, at $0.50 for every $1,000 of taxable property value.

The pressure to cut was palpable, and commissioners had their usual flare ups. Bigelow emphasized how much money the county has, how much more it can cut, and relented only because Bob Janes, the board chairman, called for a vote to move forward — and vote on the budget.

It was 4-1, with Bigelow opposing, wanting more debate.

Residents who attended the meeting gave the tax cut mixed reviews.

Fort Myers resident Lee Ford wanted help from the county to pay for youth sports at the STARS Complex.

"We have a total budget of $8 million," he said. "We're asking you to help us with 50 percent of that."

Commissioners denied the request but agreed to look into it next year.

Lehigh Acres resident Kim Hawk wanted a tighter budget.

"I predicted seven years ago that we would run into trouble because people can't afford to pay property taxes anymore," he said. "The economy crashes."

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