Local News

Study: Highlands' tax rate comparatively lower

SEBRING- Out of Florida's 67 counties, Highlands County's 2010 average total property tax rate, calculated using total property tax levy and taxable value, was the 48th lowest, a study says.

At 24.5485, Alachua County was ranked highest with Walton County lowest at 9.82.

Highlands County clocked in at 17.0359 as part of larger 2011 study nonprofit group Florida TaxWatch conducted, comparing counties' revenues and expenses and how they stacked up.

Steve Fruit, RE/MAX Realty Plus II Realtor, is aware that Highlands County's tax rate is comparatively much lower statewide.

He said Highlands County also has one of the lowest property insurance rates in the state, and that, along with the ad-valorem rates, makes the county more affordable to prospective home buyers compared to the coasts.

Heartland Real Estate Corp. Realtor Allison Willey agrees.

An added incentive, at least for Northerners, is that Florida does not have state tax, she said.

"It is definitely an incentive," she said.

According to the study, between 2000 and 2010, Highlands County's total property tax levy also grew 54.46 percent, or the 51st lowest.

A lot of the growth appears to have come about during the first five years. Between 2005 and 2010, the rate of growth was 5. 76 percent, but when the economy soured and the real estate bubble burst, Highlands County also appears to have been harder hit.

The county's total property tax levy between 2007 and 2010 plunged by 26.26 percent, the study states. Only Sarasota, Hendry, Franklin, St. Lucie, Clay and Lee counties fared worse during the time period. At 19.12 percent, Sumter County showed the highest growth, while Lee County lost a third of its property tax collection from the real estate bubble in 2007.

Despite the drop in revenue, the property tax rate for Highlands County's taxing entities remains low, even some of the lowest it's been historically.

At 4.99 mils for 2012 and 2013, the City of Sebring continues to tamp down its property tax rate, which is the lowest since 1986.

This is perhaps made financially possible because the city's taxable assessed values, which determine what a municipality collects in property tax revenues, compared to 25 years ago are much higher now although they have declined since 2006.

From 1992 to 1996, for example, Sebring's tax rate was less than double compared to now-- 8.32 mils -- but its taxable assessed values averaged $207 million.

For 2013, values were $549 million, giving the city $2.6 million in available tax revenue.

In the case of Avon Park, the drop in the property tax rate -- to $0.30 for every $1,000 in property value -- has been more dramatic.

The city's "ultra-low property tax rate," combined with its ability to finance utility impact fees, and an ordinance that grants up to a $20,000 utility impact fee credit for using an existing building, has re-energized downtown, City Manager Julian Deleon said.

"The results are evident as previously empty store fronts have steadily secured new businesses," he said. "There is presently a recycling materials processing business looking at opening in the city. The owner states that up to 20 jobs may be added," he added.

The comparatively lower tax rate is an attraction to some, but a deterrent to others, said Nick Fisher. "Some folks want more services than what Highlands has to offer," he said.

Highlands County governments may have collected taxes at a much lower rate a few years ago, but it appears it have spent less

For fiscal year 2009, Highlands County's total county and municipal government expenditure per person was 61st lowest or $1,577, the study states.

Willey said a retiree who is moving here, either from the coasts or up North, is looking for a quieter place to stay and may not be bothered that the county is not as hip-happening as other places.

What retirees want to know about is the access to hospitals and doctors in Highlands County, not the type of cultural amenities, she said. Conversely, young families used to more amenities in bigger places may get a "culture shock" when they come here even when they realize their money can go a longer way here.

What Willey likes to point out to folks is Highlands County's central location, where everything is within a doable drive.

"Highlands County is close to everything," she said. "It is one-and-a-half hours to any city you want."