Snowbird Phyllis Turek, who lives part-time in Davie, said she doesn’t expect the same concessions as full-time residents, but thinks seasonal residents should get some credit for owning a home and paying year-round for services they use only a few months.
“Nobody cares about us,” she said. “We are a money machine.”
Turek recently attended a town hall meeting on property taxes to complain about the tax burden on homeowners like her. When she saw an opportunity to speak out, she seized the moment. “All my venom came out,” she said.
She is not alone.
Part-time resident David Shafer says many of his Coconut Creek neighbors can no longer afford to spend winters here.
“People in my community are saying that when the market picks up, they are selling,” said Shafer, who has been coming to his condo in Coconut Creek for 22 years. He and his wife, Ruth, also talk about selling and buying a winter home in Arizona or California.
The seasonal owners may have a great deal at stake as the Legislature debates property tax reform, but their voices appear to be largely absent. Small-scale efforts have sprouted, but nothing on the scale of those launched by permanent residents. Among snowbirds, efforts to get organized are rare in Palm Beach and Broward counties.
Major homeowners associations — from the Broward Coalition, which represents more than 100 condominium and homeowner associations, to the Alliance of Delray Residential Associations, which represents 64 communities west of Delray Beach — haven’t created committees or appointed board members to lobby on behalf of snowbirds. Many seasonal residents don’t vote in Florida and lack the political power, said Dominic Calabro, president of Florida TaxWatch, a nonprofit government watchdog and research center for taxpayers.
“They are not involved in the political process,” he said.
Unlike Florida’s permanent residents, snowbirds don’t qualify for a property tax break and a cap in the annual increase in property taxes. Full-time homeowners receive a $25,000 reduction in the assessed value of their primary homes, known as the homestead exemption. Also, their annual increase in assessed property values and taxes is capped at 3 percent.
A variety of proposals to revamp the property tax system are under scrutiny in Tallahassee. One would roll back tax rates to 2001 for all Florida homes, including those owned by snowbirds, and limit future tax increases to what’s needed to keep pace with population growth and inflation.
The Florida League of Cities, which lobbies on behalf of 412 municipalities in the state, is pushing for a 10 percent cap increase on the part-time residents’ homes, said John Wayne Smith, the league’s assistant director of legislative and public affairs.
Smith said he traveled the state attending town hall meetings on property taxes but did not encounter any organized movement by snowbirds.
“It is very difficult to get organized,” said seasonal resident Gil Lachow, who lives west of Boynton Beach. Lobbying efforts in Tallahassee are costly, he said. “Besides, they have no interest in listening to us because we don’t elect them.”
Lachow is a founder of the Palm Beach Snowbirds Umbrella Organization, aimed at exchanging ideas on social events.
“The two-tier tax system is very unfair,” Lachow said. He pays $7,431 in taxes, up from about $3,600 in 2000, when he bought his home. His next-door neighbor, who bought his house at the same time for about the same price, pays $3,826 in taxes because of the homestead exemption, according to public records.
Canadian snowbird Dory Kilburn is determined to get Florida legislators’ attention. She joined a group in Boynton Beach collecting signatures for a petition calling for tax reform. Most of the 2,500 condominium owners in the Boynton Intracoastal Group are seasonal residents overwhelmed by rising property taxes. “Don’t get me wrong, I want to pay taxes,” she said. “But I don’t want to pay 17 times what my neighbors pay. It is shocking.”
Kilburn and her husband saw property taxes on their Ocean Ridge condo jump 41 percent from 2005 to 2006. “I put on hold the remodeling of my kitchen because I don’t know how high taxes are going to be next year,” Kilburn said.
Kilburn is one of the few snowbirds trying to find a voice in a world of politics unfamiliar to them until now.
Florida had about 818,000 seasonal residents in 2005, according to the University of Florida’s Bureau of Economic and Business Research, and their economic contributions are substantial.
Seasonal residents in Broward County were expected to pay $227 million in 2006 to help cover the costs of county government, area schools and municipal services, compared with $97 million in 2001, according to South Florida Sun-Sentinel analysis of county tax data.
Of the states popular among Canadian snowbirds, including Arizona, Texas, Nevada and California, Florida is the only one where members of the Canadian Snowbird Association complain about a disparity between property taxes paid by full-time and part-time residents, said Gerry Brissenden, the group’s president.
The inequality is rooted in the 1992 constitutional amendment that sets the 3 percent cap on property tax increases for primary homes, he said. During the hot real estate market of the past four years, the cap saved a lot of money for many homeowners, but snowbirds saw their tax bills in some cases double and triple.
Todd Bonlarron, the Palm Beach County legislative affairs director, said county commissioners listened to snowbirds and he will lobby for a cap of up to 10 percent on the increase of property taxes on non-exempted properties.
State Sen. Ted Deutch, D-Boca Raton, said he hasn’t been approached by snowbird groups, but is aware of their situation.
“The tax burden has shifted and a lot of snowbirds are leaving Florida at a time when Baby Boomers are considering where to move,” he said.
Paola Iuspa-Abbott can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 561-243-6631.
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