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Cape Coral & Lee County Property Values Rise

06/18/2013

Lee County Real Estate Values Rise 

For the first time in six years, Lee County’s property appraiser on May 31 estimated a growth in countywide real estate values, with Cape Coral leading the pack at 5.67 percent.

Cape’s spike barely beat out Lehigh Acres, which posted the second largest gain of Lee communities at 5.66 percent. Both areas were hit hard by the recession. A floundering construction industry is slowly but surely coming back.

Overall, Lee can expect a countywide gain of at least 1.99 percent in taxable values.

“I always like to point out this is an estimate, so we have another months’ work and generally that means a little more of an increase,” property appraiser Ken Wilkinson said. “But I can’t say that until the end of the month.”

Wilkinson will submit preliminary values of to the state Department Revenue on July 1. The May 31 estimates help local governments budget for the fiscal year that starts Sept. 30. The values reflect Lee’s 2012 real estate market.

Commissioner Larry Kiker said the estimate signals a return to stability for local governments and property tax revenues that went through an unprecedented spike followed by a devastating bust the past eight years.

“I think that we should start feeling better about our future,” Kiker said. “We have an opportunity to manage our growth rather than react to the last decade.”

While Lee’s number crunchers can breathe a bit easier, a 1.99 percent increase won’t help close a $30 million operating deficit. County officials had planned on 2 percent growth in the upcoming budget year.

Lee’s reserves, which have been used to balance that shortfall the past several years, will reach critical levels sooner than expected,Sept. 30, 2014, at current spending rates. Officials need at least 15 percent in savings to pay bills during the first few months of the fiscal year, before property taxes start pouring in.

Assistant County Manager Pete Winton said Lee will have to look for revenues from streams other than property taxes and make cuts. Sales tax revenues, he said, will help a little, as they’re beating out earlier predictions.

“You don’t have to cut $30 million, but certainly you have to generate some more revenues,” Winton said.

In addition to finding new ways to collect revenue, Lee will probably cut park hours and bus routes, board chairman Cecil Pendergrass said.

Cape Coral, Lehigh Acres

While Cape did better than a 4 percent increase city officials projected, creating new revenue sources remains a priority. This includes a public service tax, a fire services assessment and potentially decreasing the tax rate by 1 mill. One mill is equivalent to $1 per $1,000 worth of taxable property. The rate is now almost at 8 percent, far too close for Erbrick to the cap of 10 mills.

Due to overbuilding prior to 2007, values went down quickly so it makes sense they are bouncing back, Koffman said. The same rapid expansion occurred in Lehigh Acres, where property values plummeted following the bust.

Any kind of growth is good, according to fire Chief John Wayne. The Lehigh Acres Fire Control and Rescue District budgeted for a 2 percent decline.

“Every dollar counts,” Wayne said. “We can’t take any more negative. We still have 46 employees on a SAFER that expires in 2015 and we’re still operating at a projected $1.9 million revenue deficit.”

The SAFER is a grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency the district has received the past two years that has saved it from layoffs and shutting down fire stations. The district also recently went to a third-party vendor for ambulance medical billing. He said their goal is to be revenue neutral.

Something that may be signed by Gov. Rick Scott is a bill that may allow fire districts in the state to change the way they gather revenue to allow for other options aside from relying on fluctuating property values, Wayne said. Rep. Matt Caldwell, R-Lehigh Acres, helped bring this to the forefront this legislative session. It could allow Lehigh’s district to bring forward a referendum for 2014 to bring forth a different way to collect taxes.

“This is a 2013 assessment with 2012 transactions,” said Lehigh Acres-based real estate broker Fred Elliott. “Today we’re seeing that year over year, inventory is lower while average sale prices are higher. Prices on resells are inching back up so builders can build, complete and make a profit.”

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