Rising taxes create discord in Harmony
Article Courtesy of The Orlando Sentinel
Published October 8, 2007

HARMONY - When Kerul Kassel decided to move into this environmentally friendly community, she had a vague idea about the board that would impose taxes on her and other residents.

These taxes, levied by a governmental body called a community development district, would help build the town's infrastructure and pay for things such as lake maintenance and utility bills.

But as the community grew, she didn't expect the taxes to increase at what she considers a substantial rate. She also expected residents to be elected sooner to the district's board, whose supervisors are appointed at the direction of the developer in the community's early years.

Other residents have similar concerns that the developer is asking them to pay more than their share of the community's start-up. Residents love the "town," with its pristine lakes and energy-efficient homes, but dislike the increases in their assessments.

Some worry they may eventually be priced out of their homes: Not only do they have to pay for their district assessments, they also have to pay their county taxes and homeowner's association fees.

For fiscal year 2008, which began Monday, the community development district will spend an additional $333,000 this year, an increase of about 25 percent. The budget went from about $1.35 million to about $1.69 million.

"I don't like it," said resident Shalyn Solevilla, an engineer whose assessments are going up by nearly $200 to about $2,847. "I didn't think it was going to keep going up. It's something that I didn't budget for, and now I have to spend for it."

But the board says the increase in the district's spending, which has partly fueled the higher assessments, isn't unfair. Instead, says the board's general manager, the developer is shifting back to the residents the expenses it had been funding all along.

General Manager Gary Moyer said it's a fact that residents sometimes don't understand when they live in a community with a CDD. Harmony's district has been active since 2000, state records show.

Moyer points to Harmony's streetlights as an example.

"The developer had been paying for all the street lights," Moyer said. "In the early days . . . the developer is subsidizing those expenses."

The district will spend $30,000 more on streetlights in the new budget, an increase from about $303,000 to about $333,000.

The 2008 budget is "reflective of the work program that we expect for the next year," Moyer said.

But some residents are still unhappy that they're paying for parts of the community that's in the developmental stages. For instance, ponds are being added to areas where there are few homes, adding $20,000 to the 2008 budget.

Recently, residents have been talking about the assessments on Internet message boards.

"I think all the people on this board are asking for is a fair explanation of . . . why we're paying for common areas in parts of the neighborhood that are not inhabited by residents," one person wrote recently.

Moyer says residents have to look at it from the system's approach, just as he says all government bodies do.

"You look at a community as a system," he said. "Maintenance of all that infrastructure benefits everybody."

Now that the system is growing, somebody has to incur the extra costs of the expansion and maintenance.

Some Harmony residents say the board is developer-centric: Since the developer can appoint the supervisors early on, the board only pushes through what the developer wants and not what residents want. They can end up feeling as if they don't have a voice, even though one resident has been appointed to the five-member board.

Moyer says the monthly district meetings "are very open" and that all items are discussed.

It is customary for developers to appoint supervisors in the early stages of a community.

Under rules that govern the districts, residents can be elected to the board after there are a certain number of registered voters who live in a community. That starts the board's conversion from developer-appointed supervisors to resident-elected ones. In Harmony, two residents can run for election in November 2008.

Harmony residents aren't alone when questioning the actions of their board. Residents from across the state have had well-documented issues, some more serious than others, with boards of supervisors.

The state Legislature made the districts possible in the 1980s to help shift the burden of infrastructure from municipalities that were financially strapped during Florida's population boom.

With 537 districts in Florida, 20 in Osceola County, it doesn't appear that these districts or the issues that come with them are disappearing anytime soon.

"They are quite popular. They're a complicated tool, so it requires a lot of hands-on management," said Jeff Jones, the county's smart-growth director. "Osceola County, I think, has had quite a bit of success with them."

Supporters of the districts say they help the county's tax base by creating upscale communities and are a useful vehicle for funding infrastructure and services in large developments.

Critics, though, contend that residents often aren't aware of the hidden costs associated with them. The group Cyber Citizens For Justice Inc., which has called for more state scrutiny, has dedicated part of its Web site to community development districts and lists the state's various districts.