Commissioner's vote may mean lights will go out in some Lee communities

Commissioner Brian Bigelow was able to whittle a little off the Lee County budget Thursday night.

But it’s going to cost.

Because of a new state law requiring a unanimous vote for specific property tax increases over 10 percent, Bigelow’s single vote halted increases slated for 14 individual taxing districts. Most of them are small street-lighting districts. When Bigelow refused to support the increases, other commissioners refused to approve smaller ones to persuade his vote.

Without a vote to set the tax rate, the districts face having their lights turned off. County Attorney David Owen said the county may be able to continue collecting taxes at the existing rates, but since those rates were not read into the record during the hearing, he said, the rate may be zero.

Commissioners may also be powerless to set a tax rate until next year’s budget hearings.

That would mean lights out in some of the county’s poorest communities Oct. 1, the day the fiscal year begins. Commissioner Frank Mann pleaded for the Charleston Park streetlighting district.

“Commissioner Bigelow I appeal to you,” he said. “If we don’t approve this the lights do truly go out in Charleston Park. You’ve made your point.”

Bigelow argued repeatedly during a divisive two-hour final budget hearing that county managers should have recommended lower tax rates. Specifically he argued that since proposed rates were calculated based on preliminary property value estimates made by Property Appraiser Ken Wilkinson, they should have been adjusted when those values did not fall as far as estimated.

In those districts where values were lower than the original estimate, he said, rates were adjusted up. Where values came in higher than initial estimates rates were not adjusted.

“It doesn’t hold water to me,” Bigelow said.

Bigelow has consistently voted against county tax rates and budgets, saying the county simply takes too much.

The 14 individual taxing district were set up through Municipal Service Benefit or Taxing Units, in which residents petition the county for services and agree to pay for them through the special property tax. Their budgets range as low as less than $10,000 annually to around $40,000.

Bigelow’s arguments clearly exasperated his fellow commissioners.

“I won’t see the people in these district held hostage,” Chairman Ray Judah said. “Let it be abundantly clear the lights will go out. Let it also be abundantly clear why.”

Bigelow argued that allowing property values to drive rates is what left the county with money on hand to build a new spring training stadium for the Boston Red Sox. Judah gavelled him down.

“You’re out of order,” he said.

Bigelow voted against every tax rate and every tax-supported budget commissioners adopted Thursday night. The board did adopt its $421 million operating budget, cutting nearly 5 percent from the total.

The countywide tax rate remains at 5.3441 mills, which is just over $5.34 for every $1,000 of taxable property value.

Those districts that did not have a tax rate approved: Birkdale, Charleston Park, Daughtrey Creek, Fort Myers Villas, Heimann-Apollo, Iona Gardens, Lochmoor Village, Mobile Haven, Port Edison, St. Jude Harbor, Trailwinds, Villa Palms, Waterway Estates and Waterway Shores.

“You can make your arguments with all those people who are going to be calling you,” Judah said to Bigelow. “And they will have your number.”

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