CLEARWATER — Beach resident Bill Smith says he doesn't want to re-create the Boston Tea Party, but he does want tax relief.
As a 29-year part-time resident of the Marina House, a condo complex at the beach's southern tip, he said he's tired of property values increasing while residential market values continue to drop.
No, he and his friends aren't going to dump gallons of Lipton into the gulf. But they do have a plan.
Smith has formed the Clearwater Beach Property Tax Relief Fund, a grass roots organization that is in talks with a local law firm to lobby the Pinellas County Property Appraiser's Office in an effort to persuade officials there to reflect the drop in market value when making their assessments.
He said he believes an attorney will be granted more access and have a stronger impact on county decisions than average residents.
"We know that unless we make a fuss we won't have any success," said Smith, 69, a sales and marketing consultant who works primarily out of Philadelphia but spends about half the year in Clearwater. "Our best effort is to be up front and lobby them."
Smith, who is spearheading the initiative, said the effort is primarily being launched for Clearwater Beach, Sand Key and Island Estates residents, but is open to anyone. He's asking residents to donate $50 to a fund for the initiative, and so far has collected $2,500. He expects it will cost between $15,000 and $20,000.
Direct mailings including more details should reach homes this week, and he plans to hold a meeting at the Clearwater Community Sailing Center near the end of the month.
Smith, who pays $7,000 in property taxes for his two-bedroom condo, said he wasn't sure just how much he would like to see values reduced, but said this year's anticipated drop of 10 to 15 percent isn't enough.
Smith said his group, which is 50 strong now, is in talks with attorneys from the law firm Johnson, Pope, Bokor, Ruppel & Burns to represent it.
Real estate experts say property values, particularly along the waterfront, have dropped dramatically in the past few years. Jim Warner, a broker with VIP Realty on Sand Key, said a condo listed at $1-million last year on the barrier island recently closed at $799,000 — a 20 percent difference. Another listed at $600,000 sold for $300,000.
Smith says a unit in his complex valued at $590,000 sold for $250,000.
Still, Warner said he is skeptical of the residents' movement and thinks it is unnecessary. "This is a natural progression, and the market will take its course and work itself out," Warner said.
Pinellas County's chief deputy property appraiser, Pam Dubov, said she expects values to decline but doesn't know by how much. She said staffers now are studying the market and looking at sales comparisons and analyzing data, so cities and counties will have estimates in mid May. Homeowners will receive their TRIM notices in August.
She said most areas, including the beach, will see reductions, but there are pockets throughout the county that won't.
The drop in condo sales prices in Pinellas County reflects a trend that's going on across the nation. But the problem is especially acute in Florida, according to a Wall Street Journal report from last weekend. For example, the median condo sales price in the Cape Coral-Fort Myers area fell 26 percent to $202,3000 in the fourth quarter of 2007 from $273,4000 a year earlier, the Journal reported.
Some two-bedroom units in Miami have dropped from the high $700,000s to about $500,000, the Journal also reported.
How these numbers will affect property taxes is still anyone's guess. But Dubov said a lobbyist wouldn't sway the way her department sets values.
"We look at weekly sales trends … and my guess is Clearwater Beach will go down whether someone comes in from a law firm or not," she said.
She said property owners always have a right to appeal to the county's value adjustment board. Last year, 3,000 parcels were appealed, with 900 receiving reductions, she said.
But Smith says his group will sue if taxes don't drop enough.
"This is the hot topic around the pool and beach side," he said. "Everyone is saying 'let's do something about it.' "
City Council member Paul Gibson, a beach resident and Realtor, said he's surprised "that it's taken this long for a group of citizens to get mad and do something about it."
"I think that unless the tax assessor starts assessing properties at their value," he said, "then there is no choice but to aggressively appeal the over-assessments."