Get ready homeowners: County and most cities in Broward propose tax hikes

South Florida Sun Sentinel

Twenty-six of 31 cities, as well as Broward County government, both hospital districts and the local children services agency, are looking at raising tax rates and fees on property owners this year.

Rates in five cities — Pembroke Pines, Weston, West Park, Miramar and Hillsboro Beach — could jump more than 25 percent. Eighteen communities also are considering charging property owners more for fire protection next year.

The proposals are in response to the worst decline in Broward's tax roll in decades. The rate hikes would allow officials to avoid severe cuts to public safety and communities. Still, local governments are looking at reducing hours at parks and libraries, laying off employees and freezing salaries.

Charlotte Greenbarg, president of the Broward Coalition, an umbrella group of homeowner and condo associations, predicts a tax revolt because people expected lower taxes as a result of falling home values. She fears the tax bills will drive more families into foreclosure by adding to existing financial problems.

"It is an outrageous lack of responsibility," Greenbarg said. "These governments are living in a world that doesn't exist any more and are literally bleeding people dry."

The Property Appraiser's Office mailed the first batch of preliminary tax notices to residents last week, detailing their new property value and tentative bill. The agency expects to finish the mailing by Aug. 21 and is bracing for a deluge of complaints.

"I don't ever remember rate increases this high," Property Appraiser Lori Parrish said.

The impact will vary according to how long residents have owned their property.

Longtime owners built large tax exemptions during the real estate boom and would pay higher taxes in many cases this year. Because of their exemptions, they do not pay taxes at their home's full market value and won't benefit from the decline in real estate prices. Residents who bought homes more recently could see some savings despite higher rates because their homes are taxed more closely to current values.

A longtime owner of a home valued last year at $200,000 in Hollywood, for example, would pay an extra $222 to the city in taxes and fees, while a new owner of the same home would pay $76 more if the property's value declined at the county average.

Local governments lived off the windfall from rising property values during Florida's real estate boom, allowing officials to keep tax rates stable while collecting more money. But the taxable value of property in Broward has declined two consecutive years, falling 10.5 percent this year from $166.4 billion to $147.2 billion.

Some officials argue higher tax rates are all but unavoidable given the harsh economic realities. Under the proposed rates, most local governments are looking at bringing in no more in taxes than they did last year.

"I'm sensitive to what residents are facing and I want to try to keep the rate the same as last year, but I don't know if it's doable," said Hallandale Beach Mayor Joy Cooper, whose city is exploring a 19.9 percent rate hike. "Services cost money, and the main way to pay for them is property taxes and service charges."

Weston has not raised its rates in 15 years, but lists a 27.6 percent increase on the preliminary tax notice. Mayor Eric Hersh believes residents will understand an increase this year because the city won't have to cut police or fire protection or reduce amenities like recreational programs.

"When you start acting like a distressed city, you become one," Hersh said.

Among Broward cities, only Fort Lauderdale, Pembroke Park, Lauderdale-by-the-Sea and Sea Ranch Lakes have not proposed higher tax rates. Fort Lauderdale is avoiding an increase by tapping rainy day reserves, not filling vacant jobs and even letting the grass in city parks grow longer.

Some governments set high rates on the preliminary notices to give officials flexibility as they further discuss their budget deficits. Governments will set the final tax rates in late September following public hearings on their budgets.

County commissioners have vowed not to raise rates this year, but County Administrator Bertha Henry included a 6.7 percent increase on the tax notices because budget negotiations with Sheriff Al Lamberti continue over how much he should cut. The Sheriff's Office comprises about half of the county's operations funded by property taxes, and commissioners want him to cover about half the $109 million budget deficit.

Parkland listed a 21.9 percent increase on the tax notices, but Mayor Michael Udine doubts if the final result will be that high. The city has made cuts in its building department and parks programs, and Udine expects the city will wind up with a combination of a higher tax rate and additional cuts.

"Everyone out there is having financial issues and we need to bring this budget in as bare bones as possible," Udine said.

Scott Wyman can be reached at swyman@sunsentinel.com or 954-356-4511.

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