'Tis the season – to think about property taxes

So you've seen the Thanksgiving guests off and weathered the Black Friday mobs.

Not to add to your stress, but this might be a good time to think about your taxes — property taxes, that is. It's about time to pay them.

If you're one of the many Florida families scraping by financially this holiday season, there are options to take some of the pinch out of paying your bill, and you may not be aware of them all.

For the first time, Hillsborough County Tax Collector Doug Belden is accepting debit and credit card payments, either online or in person And there is a relatively new installment program that lets property owners spread their payments out through the first quarter of next year.

"Due to the declining economy and economic conditions, our office is always looking for ways to help those who are having difficulty by giving them choices for paying their taxes," Belden said.

Here's a primer on payment options.

• First things first: If you can pay early, do so. Property tax bills don't become delinquent until April 1. But until that time, throughout Florida, property owners are offered a series of declining discounts for early payment.

The first deadline is Wednesday, which is the last day to pay taxes and get a 4 percent break on your bill. Payments can be made online at www.hillstax.org or in person at one of several tax collector offices.

Mailed payments must be postmarked no later than Wednesday in order to receive the 4 percent discount. After that, there's a 3 percent discount in December, 2 percent in January and 1 percent in February.

There's no discount for paying in March. As of April 1, a bill is considered delinquent.

If you're a homeowner with a traditional mortgage, chances are good that part of your monthly payment goes into an escrow account that a lender uses to pay your taxes. The banks are expected to take advantage of the earliest discount.

So chances are you're covered. But if you're a commercial property owner, investor or someone who simply opts to pay your taxes and insurance on your own, it's time to pay attention to the calendar.

A person with a $2,000 property tax bill will save $80 by meeting Wednesday's deadline.

"If people can, they should take advantage of the 4 percent discount," Belden said.

• The tax collector's office also offers two payment plans. For the first one, it's too late to sign up for this year's bill, but it might be a good time to start making arrangements for next year.

The program allows people to pay their property taxes in quarterly installments. The deadline to sign up for next year's installment plan is April 30.

Two years ago, Belden began offering a separate installment plan not available in many other Florida counties. It allows people to spread out their payments in up to five installments through March, with each installment having to be at least $100.

The downside: There is a $10 fee for each payment. Plus, even if you start paying now, you don't qualify for the early payment discount, and the entire bill must still be paid off by April 1 or it becomes delinquent.

But if you anticipate getting a federal tax refund and plan to file for it early, the property tax installment plan can serve as a bridge until that time. It can also serve as a bridge for those who ultimately would like to take advantage of the quarterly installment offering.

"We try to encourage people who are on the partial payment plan to get on the quarterly payment plan," said Charlotte Luke, director of processing operations for the tax collector.

• Finally, while it may not be advisable, this year taxpayers can put their payment on a credit card. Debit cards also are now being accepted, both online and at tax collector's offices.

Belden has declined for years to offer credit card payments, citing the high fees charged by card companies. Not having that option has been a top complaint among people visiting his offices, according to customer comment cards.

So Belden recently added the option. But customers are going to pay for the service.

Those using a debit card will be charged a $1.50 fee. Those using a credit card will get charged 2.35 percent of their bill, which will wipe out more than half your savings if you make the earliest discount deadline.

Belden said his office retains no part of the service charge. It goes to the credit card companies.

Using a credit card may make more sense for people renewing a car registration or fishing license, or other services the tax collector also provides. But again, for people seeking a bridge until they get their federal tax return, a credit card payment may make sense.

Another option online is paying by e-check, which does not require a service charge.

• • •

While it may seem counterintuitive, Belden said the number of people falling delinquent on their property tax bills has actually declined in recent years. And the number of people taking advantage of at least the 3 percent discount — by paying by the end of December — has held steady at about 85 percent.

His theory: So many properties are in foreclosure or otherwise controlled by banks.

"They have to pay the taxes if they want to resell the property," Belden said.

Beyond that, people's tax bills are generally down, in some cases significantly, after rising rapidly in the runup to the market crash.

Bill Varian can be reached at varian@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3387.

>>fast facts

Property tax options

Pay early and save: 4 percent by Wednesday, 3 percent by December, 2 percent by January and 1 percent by February.

Installment Plan 1. Sign up by April 30 for the quarterly option, though this only applies for next year.

Installment Plan 2. Make up to five payments of at least $100 each, plus a $10 service charge for each payment, with full payment due by April 1.

• Put it on the debit or credit card. There's a $1.50 service charge for debit payments and a service charge on credit payments equal to 2.35 percent of your bill.

Delinquent payments by year

The number of tax bills that were paid after the April 1 deadline.

Tax yearReal EstateTangible personal property
200632,9644,765
200742,8245,660
2008 46,0713,348
2009 39,5791,782
2010 41,6371,404

'Tis the season – to think about property taxes 11/26/11 [Last modified: Saturday, November 26, 2011 3:31am]

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