Sumter County residents are facing the real possibility of a 24-percent tax increase in the coming year – and they’re understandably outraged about it.
It’s not a done deal just yet – frankly, it might as well be – but the Sumter County Commission is proposing to implement the tax increase largely to pay for the unbridled growth of The Villages south of State Road 44. They won’t necessarily spin it that way, but that’s the bottom line.
In recent weeks, residents from throughout the county have spoken out against the increase at several commission meetings. But it appears that those elected government leaders are ready to ignore their constituents and implement the first tax increase the county has seen in 14 years.
Let’s remember that blaming the wrong people for this nasty quagmire won’t do any good. For instance, County Administrator Bradley Arnold – the frontline guy who’s caught in the middle – is an easy target because he’s charged with trying to explain why the tax increase must take place.
Arnold has told residents that road improvements and a new fire station on Morse Boulevard south of SR 44 are examples of infrastructure that precede development revenue. He’s also explained that other major budget expenses include the resurfacing of Morse and Buena Vista boulevards to the tune of about $34.8 million. And construction along Warm Springs Avenue in the Village of Southern Oaks also is part of the problem.
Sumter County Sheriff Bill Farmer also isn’t to blame. He needs eight more deputies due to a state mandate to provide enhanced school security following last year’s mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. And Villages Public Safety officials shouldn’t take any heat because they’ve got to have fire stations in place before residents start moving into new homes.
The five commission members also aren’t fully to blame for this nightmare. Yes, they asked The Villages to keep building past SR 44 and have gladly gotten behind the growth initiative. And yes, they largely are a rubber-stamp group for The Villages Developer – three of them live in the community and one works for the company that pours concrete slabs by the thousands here. But that doesn’t make them the real culprits.
That distinction falls squarely on The Villages Developer and the fourth generation of Morse family members who give new meaning to the word “greed.” This generation is the first that hasn’t had to work for it and they apparently have little to no respect for the years of careful planning and the promise by late Developer H. Gary Morse to stop building at SR 44. More on that in a moment.
As you can imagine, residents from across Sumter County are upset about the increases they’re about to see in their yearly tax bills. They’ve made that quite clear in recent commission meetings.
“We don’t want a metropolitan area. We were told it would stop at (SR) 44,” said Carol Nichols, of the Village of Glenview.
“I don’t understand why The Villages is being given so much of our county money for growth,” said David Mongo, of Webster. “We just don’t want to be impacted by The Villages lifestyle.”
“It should not fall on the citizens of the county for The Villages to grow,” said Toby Farmer, of Webster, who suggested an increase in impact fees on developers instead of putting the burden on taxpayers.
Arnold said the county expects to collect about $3.5 million next year in developer impact fees, but he warned that setting the fees too high would discourage development.
While that may be true of some developers, we hardly believe higher impact fees would send The Villages Developer scurrying away, largely because he’s got his sights set on building about 60,000 homes, up to 11.2 million square feet of non-residential uses such as commercial and up to 1.4 million square feet of government or office space.
If each one of those 60,000 homes sold for $150,000 – we know many of them will sell for much higher prices – we’re talking about $9 billion. That’s the kind of cash that will support the Morse millennials’ lavish lifestyles for generations to come, so we hardly think charging more in impact fees will keep this money-grubbing family from continuing to build their mega-retirement community.
Unfortunately, no one among the rapscallion Villages brass thought about this problem in early 2016 when they were celebrating the plan to continue building south of SR 44. Morse had promised not to do that for several reasons and was even quoted as such in his Developer-owned newspaper. But clearly none of the fourth-generation Morse family members thought about that or the original vision of Villages Founder Harold Schwartz when those dollar signs were dancing in their eyes as they decided to keep building.
So, here we sit today with a real mess on our hands. Residents who live in places like the Village of Rio Ponderosa or the Village of Caroline near Lake Sumter Landing will likely be forced to help fund the growth of The Villages in an area they’ll probably never visit. And putting a portion of the burden on the backs of residents in southern Sumter County communities like Bushnell and Webster is just plain wrong.
If that’s not enough, the county apparently has reassessed property values by a large percentage, which means the increase on tax bills could be higher than 24 percent – Villager Matt Nichols said his bill will increase by a whopping 38 percent. And commissioners are getting 9.8 percent raises in their $58,000-a-year salaries, but that amount is set by the state and is partly based on population.
So, what can you do about this boondoggle? You can make your views known at two upcoming meetings at the Savannah Center. The commission will meet there on Sept. 10 and Sept. 24 at 6 p.m. and huge crowds are expected at both gatherings.
Unfortunately, we don’t see this commission changing course and listening to its constituents on this issue. They’ve already climbed into bed with the devil and it’s simply too late to do anything else. But we think it’s a crying shame that The Villages Developer is willing to saddle the residents of Sumter County with the bill for infrastructure in his booming community.
Florida’s Friendliest Hometown? It’s hardly the one that Schwartz or Morse envisioned. And certainly not the one we’ve come to know over the years.