The message from the Sumter County Commission wasn’t good Tuesday night – residents are likely to face a 24-percent increase in property taxes in the coming year.
Every Sumter County resident should be outraged at this news, even though it’s the first such increase they’ll face in 15 years. But it’s important to make sure the disdain you’re feeling isn’t directed at the wrong people, which often happens in situations like this.
By now you’re probably aware that more than 500 Villagers and area residents flocked to the Colony Cottage Recreation Center on Tuesday night to hear the bad news about the tax increase from Sumter County Administrator Bradley Arnold and the commission. The crowd was so large than more than 95 people had to be turned away due to capacity issues. And to say that everyone in attendance was upset and confused would be the understatement of the year.
But it’s important to note that Arnold and the five commissioners aren’t the culprits here. Neither is the Sumter County Sheriff’s Office, which needs eight more deputies, nor fire protection officials who need new stations, nor any county department that desperately needs more personnel, equipment or infrastructure to do its job effectively.
No, the true rapscallion behind the nightmare Sumter County residents are facing is The Villages. We all know that the mega-retirement community is in an all-out growth mode and is throwing up houses south of County Road 44 at a breakneck pace. And with such unbridled growth comes nasty consequences that many probably didn’t think about as the champagne was flowing in early 2016 when The Villages announced it would keep building homes south of State Road 44.
Before we go forward, it’s important to note a couple of things. The original plan for Florida’s Friendliest Hometown, devised by late Developer H. Gary Morse, was to stop building at State Road 44 and have the future generations of his family live quite nicely on the millions of dollars that would be generated annually through commercial real estate rental income and commissions on resale homes.
Many years ago, Morse made a deal with a much different Sumter Commission – a group that largely was anti-Villages – that he wouldn’t build south of SR 44 and was even quoted in the Developer-owned newspaper as saying such. Many believe that because of that promise, the split commission agreed to let him build the bulk of The Villages as you know it today between County Road 466 and State Road 44.
But Morse died in October 2014 and the community quickly became a much different place than he and his late father, Founder Harold Schwartz, had envisioned. As is so often the case with third and fourth generations, greed took over and the idea of making additional millions saw Morse’s promise go by the wayside. And while it’s true that the now-Villages-friendly Sumter Commission asked the Developer to keep building, we wonder if even they could have foreseen the runaway growth that’s taking place.
Which brings us back to the 24-percent tax increase – about $341 per year for the average Villages homeowner in Sumter County. At Tuesday’s meeting, Arnold explained to the agitated crowd that while the county’s rapid growth provides more money in property taxes, revenue increases often lag behind infrastructure expenses.
For instance, needed road improvements and a new fire station that recently opened on Morse Boulevard south of SR 44 are just two examples of infrastructure that precedes revenue. Roads have to be safe for travel. And fire stations must be built before residents move into their new homes so they have protection in place from Day One.
The same can be said for the increase in staff needed by the sheriff’s office. Like it or not, the more people you put in an area, the higher the crime rate. So it’s only right that the county provide longtime Sheriff Bill Farmer – a proven good steward of taxpayer money – with the funding he needs to add deputies to protect residents living in the newer areas of The Villages.
Sumter County also is facing another issue many residents probably aren’t aware of. The county’s population is estimated to be 128,000 and that means many small-county benefits, such as stipends for resurfacing, will soon disappear as that number approaches 150,000 – which as we all know will be in the very near future.
“We are not a rural county anymore,” Arnold said. “We are becoming a metropolitan county.”
State mandates, such as providing increased school security, also boost county expenditures. And millions of dollars will be needed to resurface several major thoroughfares in and around The Villages.
To make matters worse in the eyes of upset residents, commissioner salaries also will rise in the proposed budget. But let’s remember that the amount is set by the state, based partly on population. So the commissioners, who currently earn $58,000 a year plus retirement plan contributions, are going to see a 9.8 increase in their pay – which they have no control over.
Moving forward, the county will issue its official notice of the tax rate in August. Public hearings on the proposed budget will be held in September and should be approved by the end of the month and effective Oct. 1.
At Tuesday’s meeting, Commissioner Doug Gilpin suggested Arnold find the biggest venue he can for the upcoming budget hearings, as they crowd of 500-plus is likely to be tip of the iceberg in future meetings. Gilpin said the commission can’t rent The Villages Polo Fields but we actually believe that venue would be perfect. It’s in Sumter County and if it’s large enough to host a Vince Gill/Amy Grant concert or a Guinness World Record line-dancing event, we certainly think it’s sufficient enough to hold county residents who have the right to express their thoughts on such an important issue.
As we said earlier, Sumter County residents – the same people who could face increased amenity fees – have every right to be infuriated. A 24-percent increase in property taxes is no laughing matter. But let’s not blame the messenger here when the real culprit is the ever-growing Villages brass that apparently has no issue with creating a sprawling community that’s going to line their pockets with cash while your bank accounts get smaller in the process.