Lee County’s preliminary property values are out, and while the decline is less dramatic than in recent years, numbers are still down.
Estimated property values released Wednesday by Lee County Property Appraiser Ken Wilkinson show a decline of 5.29 percent in the county’s overall taxable property value from 2010 — a significantly smaller decline compared to 14.7 percent in 2009.
While the number may be lower than in years past, the fact property values continue to fall has county officials in a predicament. While many had hopes property values would have bottomed out, the decline leaves the general fund out $10 million. With revenues down, the county has yet to work its way out of a $46 million hole, and while the county, school board and constitutional officers have slashed $75 million over the last three years, the county still faces an uphill battle.
“We’re not gaining any ground,” said Pete Winton, Lee's Assistant County Manager. “If the revenue base continues to fall, we’ll keep getting deeper into a hole.”
The estimated values will be used by a variety of Lee County government agencies to draft their budgets before final numbers are released in July. With Lee County facing a $46 million deficit, the county must make a tough decision: either tighten their upcoming budget or raise the tax rate. Since the decline began in 2006, Lee County’s tax base has gone down 49 percent without officials raising the tax rate.
“During the peak, we wanted to give as much tax relief as possible,” Winton said. “We didn’t want to burden people in a falling economy.”
At its highest point, Lee County’s tax base was nearly double it’s current base. For 2005, the county’s total just values — the value of all homes without any exemptions — was $118 billion. Since then, the base has been slashed nearly in half, with 2010’s estimated total just value at $68 billion.
Now, county commissioners and other government officials will have to figure out where the money will come from if tax revenues aren’t coming through. The county collects $193 million from property taxes — the rest of the $138.8 million that makes up the general fund comes from fees.
“The board now has to decide if we absorb that (difference) or, do we roll up the millage,” said Commissioner Tammy Hall. “That’s a conversation we’ll have in June.”
The county’s current tax rate is set at 3.65 mills. In order to collect the same amount of revenue next year, the tax rate would need to increase to 3.8 mills, or about $20 per $100,000 taxable value, Winton said.
“You can continue to cut, but you have to look at the revenue side also,” he said. “We’re at a level now where we have to go deep into services, or shut down services.”
Between now and September, a workshop, meeting and public hearing are set for county members to discuss where, and how, they’ll come up with the money.
“We need an open dialogue and be as inclusive as we can be for people to participate in these decisions,” Hall said. “It’ll be a tough decision. I’d like to see 25 million cut from the budget. The sheriff’s given us $6 million ... that leaves $19 million more.”
Outside of unincorporated Lee County, properties values also declined for incorporated Lee County. Percentage wise, Cape Coral values 4.87 percent, City of Fort Myers saw a 6.97 percent decline and the City of Bonita Springs saw a 5.83 percent decline.