Key West CitizenJuly 30, 2017

In a town where achieving consensus is more elusive than the Loch Ness Monster, we seemed to have reached near consensus on one conclusion — that the lack of affordable housing in the Keys, and especially in Key West, is negatively affecting a significant number of hard-working individuals and families in our community.  

Many of our local officials have publicly recognized the housing “crisis” facing the inhabitants of our island chain. Surely they have heard the outcry from countless constituents. On the many resident surveys solicited by our local governments (and paid for by us), affordable housing is the No. 1 problem cited by the community. Surely our local officials have read the surveys and listened to our concerns, right?

Apparently not. Although much lip service has been paid to this identified crisis, our local governments have turned down almost every affordable housing project that has been brought before them in the past year. Now, almost every local government and utility has proposed or is discussing a property tax or rate increase for the upcoming year, including Monroe County, the City of Key West, Monroe County School Board, Mosquito Control District, Keys Energy, City of Key West (stormwater fees), and Key West Resort Utilities. All of this is in addition to the healthy annual increase in windstorm insurance coming our way.

All of these tax and utility increases, in one year, will further increase the cost of housing for those who are already struggling to remain in our community. The property (ad valorem) tax increases are especially troubling considering such increases disproportionately affect those who rent their housing. While there is a myth that only homeowners pay property taxes, it is in fact renters who incur a higher tax burden in our community due to the homestead exemption.

In rental situations, the landlord incurs the tax burden but passes it along to tenants in the form of rent. So, if taxes go up, rent will also go up. However, those who reside in a home they own are protected by the Florida homestead exemption, capping the appraised value of their homes and therefore limiting the amount of any tax increases. Commercial property and residential rental property do not have the benefit of the homestead exemption. Therefore, rental properties are taxed at their full market value, incurring a larger tax burden that is passed directly on to tenants. These proposed tax increases will deliver yet another blow to the segment of our community that most needs relief.

To seek tax and utility increases when our community is struggling with an unaffordable housing epidemic is callous. It is also a clear indication that our officials either have their heads in the sand or simply do not respect the expressed needs of our community. You cannot be both part of the problem and part of the solution.

We are additionally frustrated by the fact that these increases can easily be prevented with proper planning, vision and a well-conceived set of priorities. All of our governmental entities are amply funded, despite the moans of politicians that it is never enough. Monroe County’s operating and capital budget has ballooned to $455 million, for a small county of only 75,000 residents. The county is seeking a tax increase this year to hire eight new employees, which will cost taxpayers an additional $5.5 million in salaries and benefits.

How could we possibly need eight more employees to do this year what we did last year if our population has not changed? The county also neglected to mention that when it purchases property such as Rowell’s Marina, at the taxpayer’s expense and over market value, it will then need to hire additional employees and pay for all of the improvements and maintenance. Then comes the tax increase. Government gets even bigger, and we keep paying for it. We now have a budget larger than many small countries, but it is not enough to feed the beast. We must take more from our residents who have nothing left to give.

The situation is not any better with the city. The ink was not even dry on payment of the $18 million Taj Ma City Hall, complete with marble bathrooms and designer office chairs, when the city began funding construction of the $4 million amphitheater. The city did not let the lack of a business plan, lack of any experience in operating such a venue, or a possible tax increase to its residents get in the way of its desperation to host a Jimmy Buffett concert. But it is just taxpayer money, so bring on the margaritas!

If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result, our local definition of insanity should be electing the same people over and over again and expecting a different result. We did happen to notice that all of these tax and utility increases are proposed in a year without any local elections. Perhaps our elected officials plan to rely on voter amnesia when they again ask us for our votes in the next election cycle.

This time, we cannot forget. Since our government clearly does not want to be part of the solution, we must take matters into our own hands. We urge our community to stand up and hold our elected officials responsible for the financial harm they are inflicting on our community. It is time to demand term limits for every single elected office. It is time for a friendly citizen reminder that we do not serve our government, our government serves us.

The Citizen