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Fees may offset lure of lower tax rates

If you've shopped for houses in Hillsborough and Pasco counties, your real estate agent or home builder has probably tried to sell you on the lower property taxes in Pasco.

But will your property tax bill be lower in Pasco? Not necessarily.

Here's an example:

A 1,954-square-foot house on Rockrose Drive in Cross Creek neighborhood in the New Tampa area sold in June 2002. Its owner recently paid $2,588 in property taxes.

Two miles north over the Pasco line in the Meadow Pointe neighborhood, a 1,835-square-foot house on Morningmist Drive cost its owner $3,241 in 2003.

Although the tax rate in Hillsborough is higher, the Pasco homeowner was hit with an extra $1,179 in Community Development District fees that appear on his tax bill.

Developers pass the fees to home buyers to pay for roads, street lights, sidewalks, clubhouses and other infrastructure. That Meadow Pointe homeowner isn't alone.

For thousands of Pasco families, CDD fees inflate their tax bills above those for comparable non-CDD neighborhoods in Hillsborough.

"You've got to read the fine print," Pasco Property Appraiser Mike Wells said. "You're talking some serious dough."

The same phenomenon applies to comparisons between the Carrollwood/Northdale area of Hillsborough and Land O'Lakes neighborhoods such as Oakstead.

An Oakstead house has a tax bill several hundreds dollars higher than does a similar sized Northdale house. The difference, once again, is the CDD fees paid by Oakstead but not by Northdale.

New Tampa's Hunter's Green neighborhood is often compared to the budding Seven Oaks community in Wesley Chapel. Both are considered "move-up" neighborhoods with homes mostly larger than 2,000 square feet.

But again, any savings accruing to Seven Oaks buyers compared to Hunter's Green buyers usually vanishes when CDD fees of more than $1,400 are added to the tax load.

Rudy Richichi checked out houses in New Tampa and Wesley Chapel before buying his 1,873-square-foot home in Meadow Pointe in 1998. Pasco's lower taxes were a selling point.

His first property tax bill confirmed the house wasn't the tax bargain he'd initially believed. The CDD fees leapt off the tax notice: $1,100.

"That was one of the best kept secrets. Sales people didn't want to provide information about CDDs that could hurt their sales," Richichi said.

Still, if you omit its growing number of CDD neighborhoods, there's truth in the lower tax claim for Pasco. And Hillsborough CDD neighborhoods can't match the lower tax bills of Cross Creek.

Unincorporated Pasco is taxed just shy of 20 mills. Unincorporated Hillsborough's rate is 23.5 mills, at least in the New Tampa and Northdale areas. A mill represents a dollar of tax for every $1,000 worth of taxable property.

Tax bargains abound if you seek out the non-CDD Pasco communities. One of them is the Lakes at Northwood neighborhood across Bruce B. Downs Boulevard from Meadow Pointe.

A 1,796-square foot home on Sky Lake Circle paid $1,882 in property taxes last year. That's about $700 less than the tax bill on the previously cited Cross Creek house and $1,400 below the Meadow Pointe house.

Admittedly, comparing tax bills is treacherous business. The state's artificially low taxable value on homes, a product of a Save Our Homes law that caps property value increases at 3 percent a year, vanishes after each sale.

So it's wise to compare homes bought at the same time. (Which the St. Petersburg Times did for the above examples. Each home changed hands in June 2002).

Also, builders usually price homes more cheaply in Pasco. Jumping north over the county line brings savings of about $15,000 to $20,000 for almost the same house.

In the above examples, the house in Cross Creek sold for $147,000, the Meadow Pointe house for $136,900 and the Lakes at Northwood house for $137,400.

"Between Pasco and Hillsborough, I usually tell people it's a $10,000 price difference for each $100,000 of home," said Bob Peercy of Prudential Tropical Real Estate in Land O'Lakes.

In another wrinkle affecting taxes, Pasco's Property Appraiser's Office appears to value homes more highly than does Hillsborough Property Appraiser Rob Turner's office.

Equal-sized homes sold for $15,000 cheaper in Meadow Pointe versus Cross Creek. But in many cases, the taxable value of the less expensive Meadow Pointe house matched that of the Cross Creek house.

"We're tight on value. We set it pretty close to 90 percent of the home's sales price. We know what those houses are worth," Wells said.

It's different in Hillsborough, where the appraiser tends to cut buyers a bit more slack. "Generally, our assessments hover around the 85 percent mark," said Tim Wilmath, who oversees valuations in the Hillsborough appraiser's office.

Of course, many home buyers don't mind CDD fees if they mean a community swimming pool, unblemished tennis courts or richer landscaping. A house in the Lakes at Northwood is taxed more lightly. But the Lakes, unlike Meadow Pointe, has no swimming pool or clubhouse.

The Lakes' top amenity is a pocket park with a volleyball court, tennis court, basketball hoops and playground. Cross Creek is similarly equipped, but, being older than the Lakes, its trees are more mature.

"You'll get a lot of opinions. Some people don't give a hoot about the cost of CDDs," Richichi said.

And many buyers, like Richichi, prefer Pasco over Hillsborough independent of tax concerns. Pasco is less crowded. Traffic is typically lighter. Herds of cows still graze on the roadside.

It won't last, however. Growth projections show Wesley Chapel and Land O'Lakes building 50,000 homes during the next 20 years. Traffic jams, shopping centers and other signs of urban life will follow.

"This used to be the country," Richichi said. "When I came here there was nothing between Bruce B. Downs and Interstate 75. But it's getting so everything is developed."

_ James Thorner covers growth and development in Pasco County. He can be reached at (813) 909-4613 or toll-free 1-800-333-7505, ext. 4613. His e-mail address is thornersptimes.com.

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