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Don't blame us, Realtors tell Damato

The leadership of the Citrus County Board of Realtors wants the County Commission to be conservative with the community's tax dollars.

And it doesn't want to get blamed for hurting the community for taking that stand.

The leaders are taking issue with comments that county Commissioner Dennis Damato made during last week's budget hearing. He singled out the real estate agents for their strong push to reduce the tax rate. He said that, as property value experts, they should have known what was happening in the marketplace.

John Finley, president of the Board of Realtors, said some of his members felt Damato's comments were "a slap in the face.''

"Basically, we were dismayed. We were singled out as the parties that manipulated the market,'' Finley said.

In addition, Property Appraiser Melanie Hensley also made a comment recently about real estate agents increasing property values, said J. Barry Cook, president elect for the association.

Hensley said her comments were misconstrued. She said that sometimes buyers will put an outrageously high price on their home and a seller will buy it, beginning the value escalation process.

"It was not my intent to blame the Realtors,'' she said. "It's up to the homeowner to decide what they are going to sell for and the buyer to buy for ... that's how it works. It's free enterprise.''

That is how the Realtors see the issue. Real estate agents don't control the market, said Gene Wade, past president of the group. "We facilitate the sale.''

He said he didn't appreciate comments that indicated that some real estate agents deceived buyers so they didn't know that values, and therefore taxes, were increasing.

"We're not here to deceive the public,'' Wade said.

"We're their neighbors,'' Finley added.

Finley said that the association's members were upset by Damato's comments and that the Board of Realtors just wanted to make it clear that the commission is still receiving millions more in tax money, even after agreeing to cut more than $10-million from the budget after the hearing.

That is not slashing the budget, he said. "That's eliminating part of the increase.''

He argued that real estate professionals do know that there are peaks and valleys. They even talked to Hensley's office about them as they were happening.

Damato does not apologize for calling out the real estate agents who argued for a lower tax rate at last week's hearing.

"If they want to pick on me, they can pick on me,'' he said.

"We never heard from any of these people during the (budget) process,'' he said. "Yet they were so quick to jump on the bandwagon'' to seek the tax decrease.

"That's not right,'' he said. "How about they learn about the process before they open their mouth?''

In recent weeks the commissioners have held budget workshops at which commissioners and staff went through the budgets in painstaking detail.

If the Realtors had been there, Damato said, they would have seen the critical need for dollars in various categories that now have been cut to cut the tax rate.

This means "quality of life'' issues that make the county attractive to new residents, such as improved water quality, won't get the funding they need, Damato said.

Finley said his membership didn't appreciate being painted as working against the good of the community. They are members of the community and are active in a variety of community causes, including strong support for Habitat for Humanity.

Damato said the Realtors were happy when they were benefiting from the property value increases.

"They didn't complain when it was peaking, but they did complain when it hit the valley,'' he said.

The Realtors responded that the county will be hitting a valley at some point in the future as well and should plan its budget for the leaner times ahead.

Damato said he would have liked to have seen the individual agents work through the Board of Realtors to have a unified voice, one which would offer solutions to the tax, property value and market issues facing real estate in the area at this time.

Wade said the Realtors are willing to work with the commission and would have liked an invitation earlier in the process. They spoke out at the public hearing because "we thought that this was the meeting when we bring this forward.''

"We're not trying to pick a fight,'' Finley said. ''We just want our elected officials to take a look at the dollars and make sure they're going in the right place.''

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at 564-3621 or behrendt@sptimes.com.

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