What to do? What to do?

The fighting in Winter Park over commercial redevelopment, “McMansions,” the commuter rail stop, and all things obstructionist and isolationist continues to take its toll on our willingness to face reality. While our tax base withers and our revenues fall Beth Dillaha, Margie Bridges, and Phil Anderson sit on our City Commission and spend all their time discussing conservation districts, historical districts, killing the commuter rail agreement with Orange County, the “Hometown Democracy” referendum, imposing super majority voting requirements, and applauding themselves for stopping everything in their path.

A few months ago Bill Donegan, Orange County Property Appraiser, made a presentation to the City Commission that caused an uproar by those who can’t stand the idea of doing anything constructive in Winter Park. Note that “constructive” doesn’t have to be gigantic, resource gobbling, intensive redevelopment. “Constructive” just has to offer some tangible benefits to our tax base and quality of life.

Let’s hope that the voters of Winter Park see the light in March 2010 and decide to face the future with a positive outlook.

Mr. Donegan offered his rebuttal to one critic, a former Winter Park City Commissioner, as follows:

Recently, Barbara DeVane submitted a Letter to the Editor which was printed in the Winter Park/Maitland Observer on 9/17/2009.  After reading her letter, I felt it necessary to correct several inaccurate and misleading statements that were attributed to my presentation on the state of the City of Winter Park’s property taxes at their Council meeting.

First, there are some factual items to note. From 2006 to 2009 the number of homestead properties in Winter Park decreased by 10 properties – indicating a very flat residential base. Furthermore, for the 2009 tax roll residential properties decreased in value overall 8.0% while commercial properties decreased overall 5.4% in value. For the city, this means had it not been for new commercial projects added in 2009 the city would have most likely been forced to cut more funds for parks, fire, police, library and other services which make the City of Winter Park so unique and special.  New commercial and re-developed commercial property can be beneficial to a city’s tax base if done properly.  Of course, any new development would have to conform to the City of Winter Park’s Comprehensive Master Plan.  I was not suggesting the city build a new mall or a Holiday Inn in the middle of Central Park. Additionally, I know of no study which concludes commercial property uses more city services than residential property. While I was a Councilman for the City of Maitland, the office complexes west of I-4 generated 65.0% of the city’s property taxes and used 35.0% of the city’s services.  That has gone down in the past few years because of the lack of new development in the City of Maitland’s Master Plan.

In my presentation to the city council, I listed three areas that could be regarded as economically blighted areas with the potential for redevelopment opportunities:

1.        N. Orange Ave.- from the current CRA to Hwy 17/92

2.        Fairbanks Ave. – from the current CRA to Interstate 4

3.        Lee Road – from the current CRA to Interstate 4

These corridors would only be an extension of the current CRA boundaries.

In regards to Mrs. DaVane’s premise of ‘if improvements were made and business and profits increase, the business owner would pay higher rents’; from my experience, nothing could be further from the truth.  I was a business owner on Park Avenue for ten years.  Paying some additional rent was never a problem so long as the traffic brought in the business.  Of course, one would have to be a business owner to understand that volume cures most ills.  A lack of foot traffic volume is a primary issue facing Park Avenue.

Mrs. DaVane also makes an assumption that all commercial properties are assessed and pay taxes based on their income.  The fact is, of the 1,600 commercial properties in Winter Park only 344 are assessed using the income methodology for tax purposes.  Further, it appears Mrs. DaVane has failed to recognize the impact of Amendment 1 and its assessment limitation on all non-homestead properties. This assessment limitation “caps” future assessment increases of non-homestead properties at a maximum of 10%.  This means as commercial values continue to decline, the assessment will be capped at that lower value. During a slow recovery, it could take a municipality many years before their commercial strata valuation (and tax revenue) returns to previous levels. Therefore, the only way by which the City of Winter Park can benefit from a commercial base in the areas described is if there is a change of ownership, use, or re-development of the property. These three events “reset” the assessment cap.  One more thing to remember, should the Save Our Homes recapture rate be repealed, the city’s revenue will be further reduced and the residential strata will be flat as a pancake.

Finally, Mrs. DeVane states, “Let’s create a Fire and Emergency Medical fee.”  Notice this is a fee, not tax.  With declining property values comes decreased revenue. So how can local government increase their revenue? The answer is by either increasing their millage rate, increasing existing fees, or by implementing new fees.  From 2001 to 2006 the City of Winter Park raised the tax rate on property from 3.1720 mills to 4.7580 mills (not inclusive of debt service). That’s a 50% increase while at the same time their total taxable property values increased from $2.139 billion to $3.993 billion or 86.6% in 6 years.

Any newly imposed fee would require a study to determine the methodology for the assessment of the cost of the service.  How would the fee be determined?  Would it be one flat fee for all?  Would residential be different than non-residential?  Would larger homes pay more that smaller homes?  Would it be a user fee that you only pay if you need the service?  Would that mean if your home catches fire, the fire department would first inquire if you’ll be paying cash, check, or credit card before responding?  I would hope not!

Currently, one thing for certain is that 72.6% of the total tax burden is paid by the city’s homeowners. If the city can not expand its tax base, the burden of any additional revenue, to continue the quality of life the city is known for, will fall squarely on the shoulders of those same homeowners.  Then, I would assume that Mrs. DaVane’s answer is to again increase the city’s tax rate – as was done (by 50%) from 2001 to 2006.

It’s important to remember that newspapers by their nature are limited to reporting only about a portion of my presentation regarding the City of Winter Park’s property tax base. I wish Mrs. DaVane could have been in attendance at the council meeting to listen to the entire presentation and gain a more complete understanding prior to using an editorial to present an incomplete picture to others who were not in attendance.


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