St. Lucie County residents ask commissioners to lower milllage rate and further trim $587.5 million budget

FORT PIERCE – Some 30 St. Lucie County residents pleaded with the Commission Sept. 19 to reconsider approving its $585.5-million budget and proposed 8.8759 millage rate, lamenting what they called the highest overall millage in the state.

South Indian River Drive homeowner Mark Derosa said he was shocked to find out just how high the millage rate on his tax bill had risen.

“It’s come to my attention this year after a series of tax increases at the county level that our millage rate for property tax is the highest in the State of Florida out of 67 counties,” he said. “According to a study done by Florida Tax Watch in January of 2018, St. Lucie County had a millage rate of 23.114; the average county millage rate for the State of Florida was 18.097, and the median rate was 16.885. This means that our rate was 27.7 percent higher than the state average and almost 37 percent higher than the state median. Keep in mind that this was before the millage rate was increased by 1 mil by the School District referendum in April.”

Marge Matthew of Tradition concurred.

“I agree with everything he said, he’s done his homework better than I,” she said referring to Mr. Derosa. “I too believe that we are overtaxed. I moved here from Palm Beach County, which I thought was the highest, but now I know it’s not, So, I wish you would lower our millage.”

Commissioner Chris Dzadovsky agreed with the speakers about the overall tax rate in St. Lucie County.

“If you take the aggregate, it is the highest in the state,” he said.

The commissioner then asked Office of Management & Budget Director Jennifer Hill to help clarify the makeup of the millage rate reflected on the overall tax bill of residents. The latter went through a series of complicated explanations, insisting that other taxing entities and not the county itself were responsible for the high millage rate.

“As you mentioned, St. Lucie County is the highest millage rate in the State of Florida, but that’s only part of the equation,” she said. “It’s just the aggregate for all of the taxing districts. For Fiscal Year 2019, the average millage rate levied by all taxing districts in St. Lucie County was 22.8369 mils. Of that, 8.9 mils were levied by St. Lucie Board of County Commissioners, which includes constitutional officers, dependent districts and municipal service taxing units. The 67-county average is 16.5160, and we’re at 22.8369, when you add in all the other taxing entities. When you look at just specifically Board of County Commissioners, the millage rate we’re proposing is actually down slightly to 8.87 mils. The highest county was at 13, the lowest at 3.4319, and the average at 7.9821. So when you talk about just boards of county commissioners, we are slightly above average – we are not the highest county.”

Even though Ms. Hill emphasized that only 39 percent of county tax bills reflected the Board’s charges and the rest incorporated millages levied by the St. Lucie County School Board, the municipalities and other special districts, her explanation failed to satisfy Port St. Lucie resident Anita Germano, who wondered why taxes continued to soar with so many new taxpayers moving into the county.

“One of the things we notice out in the Tradition area and St. Lucie West is we have so many new roofs out there, so hopefully during the course of this year and the incoming year more people will be paying taxes,” she said. “I’ve been here three years now, and I don’t understand why we’re not getting a little bit of relief or seeing a decrease in our taxes seeing we have so many new people in St. Lucie County. There should be a little wiggle room in there for us so we could have a little relief.”

Nettles Island homeowner Mike Friend was more blunt in his assessment, responding to the facts provided by staff early in the hearing that the county’s rising property values partially contributed to a $42-million increase in the budget and the proposed millage rate was 5.03-percent higher than the aggregate roll back rate. Most counties in Florida do not rely on the latter, which is the rate that would provide them with the prior year’s tax proceeds due to a rise in local property values, preferring instead to pad their budgets with the additional revenue and attribute higher taxes to a good economy.

“As I understand it, part of the issue is we’ve underestimated the value of our properties, so we have more tax dollars coming in and that’s been happening for more than a year,” Mr. Friend said. “What I and everybody here is struggling with is why we need to come here and ask for the money back. It’s like me going to Wal-Mart and I pay for my stuff and get too much change back from the cashier. Well, obviously the right thing to do is give the money back – it’s not my money. The wrong thing to do is to go out and plan how to spend it.”

For his part, Port St. Lucie homeowner Mark Gotz insinuated the county had spent too much money on both airport and port properties that had yet to show a profit and needed to sell some of its municipally-owned lands to help lower taxes.

“The purchase of a port for $25 million was to quote-unquote create jobs,” he said. “May I remind you it is not government that creates jobs – that is the private sector. The building hanger on the airport, this was $5 million in the budget two years ago, and this last year, it went to $6.5 million. This building is designed to be leased, but so far, we don’t have a tenant. We have over 10,000 acres of property that’s owned by the county, over a thousand acres on South Hutchinson Island alone. Sell some to a developer and reduce our taxes and create a better tax base for the citizens.”

After the last public speaker’s comments, Commissioner Frannie Hutchinson launched a lengthy explanation of all the challenges and improvements she’d seen in the county during her 17-year tenure on the Board, particularly highlighting local economic gains.

“I’m going to show you just how far this county’s come in 10 years,” she said. “Those that lived in poverty in 2010 was 17.6 percent in this county; today, it’s 12.8 percent. Our median house price was $104,000; today, it’s $230,950. Our per capita income, which was scary in 2010, was only $30,300. Our per capital income in 2017 was 38,835. Our unemployment rate in 2010 was 13.9, and we went higher. Unemployment today is 4.3 percent.”

The commissioner insisted that the county’s strict adherence to a five-year strategic plan had already produced financial gains but said it was still too soon to depend on new tax revenue from the rapidly growing rooftops of the Tradition area.

“The new construction, the new businesses that was brought up, that isn’t on the tax roll,” she said. “It’s a year behind, so the figures that we get are a year behind. They don’t hit the tax roll until next year.”

In response to Mr. Gotz’ comments, Commissioner Dzadovsky defended the county’s decision to hold onto its acreage on Hutchison Island and in other areas as a way of preserving the rural character of St. Lucie County.

“Somebody brought up our preserves,” he said. “In the ’90s a lot of folks were coming here from Miami-Dade and Broward insisting that this county and surrounding counties begin to maintain green space and to not build on every inch. That was voter approved, and it was a $20 million value over a 20-year period. Those 10,000 acres have resulted in the investment with matches, of more than $70 million worth of value. So, we will maintain Old Florida to a large extent, which is a huge reason why people come here to begin with.”

Commissioner Cathy Townsend said she backed the proposed budget due to the rising costs of unfunded mandates coming down from the state but admitted struggling with the millage rate because St. Lucie County voters had trusted their elected officials enough to approve both the half-cent sales tax and School Board referendums.

“When I look at the gifts that we were given, we really had an easy year this year,” she said. “For me, the biggest gift of all was we had the bond between us [at voters] and they were trusting in the leadership. I approve our budget, but I also know there are ways to trim the budget and cut it, and we’re looking at that. I cannot approve the millage rate, because for me, I want to give the gift back to the community. The property values have climbed, so for me, that’s another gift. I want something to be given back.”

Although Ms. Hill had previously told the Board this year’s figures represented a .28 percent reduction in the aggregate millage rate, Chairwoman Linda Bartz, while supporting both the proposed budget and property tax rate, admitted the decrease was insufficient.

“I know it is very tiny, but there is a slight reduction in the overall millage, and I expect we are going to continue on that path,” she said. “What we are lowering that millage this time is not acceptable, but we have a certain budget to meet, and we will be working harder on lowering it.”

The Commission then voted unanimously to accept the proposed 2019/20 budget and voted 4-1 to accept the 8.8759 millage rate, with Commissioner Townsend dissenting on the latter.

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