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Port St. Lucie Civic Center fountain

The city is still paying off the bill to install the much-loved fountain at the Port St. Lucie Civic Center. Revenue from increased property taxes should help to erase the debt and allow the fountain to keep making great memories for years to come.

Increases in property values, taxes address growing debt

BY SUSAN BURGESS

A mere eight years ago, dazzled with visions of becoming a renowned center for biotechnology, the economic future of Port St. Lucie was as bright as the sun-splashed beach pictures tourists love to send back home. Today, the city is working its way out of debts from multi-million-dollar investments and looking toward a brighter future.

A tax hike averted a $7.7 million deficit this year and continuing deficits that would have drained the city’s reserves dry in two years. Instead, money to pay down the debt will be put aside while rising property values continue to add to the city’s tax collections each year.

“Simply put, the $220 million investment (to bring in new companies) the city made over the past 10-15 years in an effort to change the economic landscape failed for the most part, and has drawn us into a deficit spending cycle,” City Manager Jeff Bremer told the City Council in June before its annual summer budget workshop. “This deficit spending must stop, and the recent Moody’s Investors report illustrates that we must address the underlying cause of our deficits. Without action during this fiscal year, we will exhaust our entire fund balance in two years.”

TAXPAYER INPUT

On Sept. 28, the council halted the deficit spending, voting 4-1 — with Mayor Greg Oravec holding out for a lower increase or no increase — to raise property taxes by $1 per $1,000 in assessed property value. It did not make for a happy audience at the two public hearings on the $552.3 million budget.

“This tax increase is ridiculous,” said resident Michael Harrison. “Everybody needs to tighten their belts. This is not fair to the taxpayer.”

Councilman Ron Bowen acknowledged that the increase, which he supported, is “a bitter pill to swallow, but the longer we wait to clean it up, the harder it will be.”

Moody’s downgrade of the city’s bond rating makes it more difficult for the city to borrow money — a development Harrison applauded during the final public hearing. “That’s a good thing,” he said, emphasizing the word good, to a smattering of appreciative laughter from the audience.

SPENDING CUTS

Along with an end to the deficit spending that sent the cash reserves plummeting will come a $1.8 million spending cut, plus $3.9 million that won’t be spent on roads, and together they will put a sizable chunk of cash — $12.6 million — in the city’s coffers. That is expected to help tide the city over while property values continue to ramp up as the effects of the great recession finally recede. During the recession years, property values dropped by 51 percent.

“Our tax rate was raised from $5.62 per $1,000 of assessed value, to $6.62 — an increase of $1 for every $1,000. So, a property valued at $100,000 after homestead exemption would have to pay an additional $100 a year,” explains city Communications Director Ed Cunningham. “That equates to an additional $8.33 a month. As you know, other taxing authorities also charge millage.”

Speakers said the county, fire district and school district were also raising property taxes.

Residents who spoke were especially irked that the city manager had recommended a smaller tax increase, but the council opted for a more expensive one, with one resident saying that the council didn’t pay any attention to suggestions by an informal citizens’ group that looked at the budget — which annoyed several council members who tried to rebut.

The city counts research laboratory VGTI-Florida, the digital production company Digital Domain and the city’s attempt to create a new city center at Walton Road and U.S. 1 as failed economic investment projects. But Bremer, in an abundance of caution, included in his calculations the biotech firm Torrey Pines Institute for Molecular Studies, also struggling due to a cutback in state and federal grants.

HOPE ON THE WAY

Bremer did not leave the residents or the council without a shred of hope. “I would propose that we reduce, or redirect, the millage by 20 percent per year until it disappears or is completely redirected. For example, a 1 mill increase will be reduced by .20 mills annually until it completely disappears after the fifth year. This is possible due to the expected growth in our taxable value and the new growth that is expected to occur. An annual review of the additional millage will be conducted each year to assess if we can reduce or redirect the millage at a faster rate.”

Council members said they will be looking to reduce the tax in coming years, saying this was not the first in a series of planned tax hikes and noting that they’d raised taxes before, only to lower them in subsequent years.

So is the city’s love affair with biotech over? “Time will tell,” said Vice Mayor Linda Bartz.

But the city will no longer play a funding role if anything new does come along, she said. “I think everyone has learned a tough lesson. I think many people understood that we did not take this increase lightly. We know people want a good quality of life whether they are retirees or young families.”

The city’s economy has always depended on development for its growth. When the recession hit, construction halted, with all the major developers fleeing. The courts worked overtime, having to hire employees to handle the foreclosures on homes that had been purchased for vastly inflated values.

Port St. Lucie’s future must include support for the small businesses, the “mom and pops” that make up most of the city’s businesses, Bartz said. “We need to help them grow and stay in business.”

The city must refocus and look for businesses that will both provide current residents with jobs and interest young people in going to school and coming back to settle in Port St. Lucie and raise their own families, she said. “We have no choice. We have to make sure that whatever we do is sustainable in the future.”


HOW WE GOT HERE


WHAT FAILED:

• Digital Domain: City gave it $33.3 million to open at the Tradition Center for Innovation.

• Vaccine and Gene Therapy Institute-Florida: City is on the hook for $64 million in bonds used to build the institute’s lab at the Tradition Center for Innovation.

• City Center: This has a complex history of ownership, but the bottom line is that the city borrowed $31.4 million to build the infrastructure and not only has to pay that back, but hasn’t been paid millions in property taxes and fees due from the property owners. The city has also struggled to repay $46.5 million in redevelopment funding used to build the civic center and its outdoor amenities.

WHAT IS FALTERING:

• Torrey Pines Institute for Molecular Studies: City mortgaged its own municipal buildings to borrow $45.6 million to help the institute construct its building at the Tradition Center for Innovation.

Source: Figures taken from Page 3 of the June 26, 2015, budget primer for 2015/2016 for the City Council


CITY MANAGER JEFF BREMER EXPLAINS
“WHAT BROUGHT US HERE”


“As a rapidly growing community in the early to mid-2000s, our primary industry was building. There was a strong desire to provide diversity and enhancement to our economy. We focused on the bio-tech industry, high end digital animation and the creation of a downtown on US 1 at Walton Road. We partnered with the State of Florida, the EDC, and, to some extent, the county to provide incentive packages that resulted in the recruitment of Torrey Pines Institute of Molecular Studies, the Vaccine, Gene and Therapy Institute and Digital Domain. We also formed a public private partnership for the creation of a 70 acre downtown with a Civic Center as a main anchor. We also brought a digital post-production animation studio on board with Digital Domain. Then the bottom fell out. The Great Recession hit with full force and effect. The housing market plummeted and the City’s taxable value (of property) dropped by 51% from a high of 13 billion in 2007 to a low of 6.3 billion in 2011.”

Source: Budget Primer for 2015/2016 for the City Council