Here’s why some Tampa Bay homeowners pay far more in taxes than their neighbors

Property tax notices might bring some sticker shock to owners of homes purchased in 2021.
The home at 1121 23rd Ave N. (left) and the home at 1111 23rd Ave N. (right) in St. Petersburg are similarly sized at under 1,000-square-feet, but have vastly different property tax bills. The house at 1121 has a market value of $281,553 and has a proposed tax bill of $4809.26. The home at 1111 has a market value of $274,230 and has a proposed tax bill of $772.82.
The home at 1121 23rd Ave N. (left) and the home at 1111 23rd Ave N. (right) in St. Petersburg are similarly sized at under 1,000-square-feet, but have vastly different property tax bills. The house at 1121 has a market value of $281,553 and has a proposed tax bill of $4809.26. The home at 1111 has a market value of $274,230 and has a proposed tax bill of $772.82. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Sep. 9, 2022|Updated Sep. 9, 2022

The two homes in the Starkey Ranch development in Odessa share many attributes.

They have the same square footage, same masonry construction, same number of bedrooms and bathrooms.

They have nearly the same market value, too, according to the Pasco Property Appraiser’s Office. What they don’t have are the same property tax bills.

Mark and Leslie Metrovich bought their home in January 2021. That means its official appraisal — the one used for determining a property tax bill — got reset to reflect what they paid for it. The new, higher appraisal shows up on their tax bills for the first time this fall.

Their proposed real estate taxes are $5,125 — or a third more than neighbors on CallisiaDrive who have a similar house.

The neighbors have lived there for five years longer and enjoy a generous tax shelter under Florida’s Save Our Homes amendment. In addition to shielding a portion of a home’s worth from getting taxed, it caps how much the taxable value rises each year.

Related: Is your property tax bill higher than your neighbors’?

The program and a subsequent expansion — passed during prior spikes in home values — were meant to protect long-time residents from getting priced out of their homes due to rising taxes. But it results in newer homeowners paying much bigger tax bills than neighbors who bought years earlier.

Newer residents pay more to finance public schools, police, fire protection and other local government services based solely on their closing date.

“I think it should be equitable,” said Mark Metrovich. “Taxes should be calculated based on the value” not when a property was purchased. “Can you point to any other item where you calculate a tax like that?”

The discrepancies are magnified this year by escalating property values across the region. Pasco County, for instance, reported a 16.7% jump in its assessed values over last year. The hardest hit are first-time buyers in Florida who don’t have a homestead exemption to transfer to their new residence.

To tell this story, Times reporters asked the property appraisers in Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties to help identify comparable properties facing wildly different tax bills.

In the Country Way neighborhood in Carrollwood, for instance, one homeowner will get a proposed tax bill of $1,337 while the buyer of a nearby home receives an expected bill for $4,334. Both homes have market values of nearly $290,000,

The difference? The Save Our Homes amendment knocked nearly $170,000 from the taxable value of the owner getting the cheaper bill.

“It’s a very fundamental flaw” of Save Our Homes, said Dominic M. Calabro, president and CEO of Florida TaxWatch, a nonprofit research institute. “It’s not a tax cap. It just puts an artificial constraint on one type of property at the expense of everyone else. Fundamentally, that’s un-American.”

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Voters approved the Save Our Homes constitutional amendment in 1992 and the prime beneficiaries are owners of homesteaded properties. The government can increase their annual assessment by an amount only equal to the Consumer Price Index or 3%, whichever is lower.

In 2008, voters approved additional changes to extend a 10% yearly assessment cap on commercial properties and to provide homeowners the ability to transfer part of their Save Our Homes protection. The transfer is allowed if the homeowner buys and moves to a more expensive residence.

The 2008 change also doubled an exemption on a homestead’s taxable value to $50,000 except for values used to finance public education, which would be half that amount.

Ken Wilkinson, who retired in 2020 after 40 years as Lee County property appraiser, is the architect of Save Our Homes. One of the motivations, he said, was the property value increases in Lee County that averaged 12% a year for his first dozen years in office.

That scenario, he said, was much like the driving force behind Florida’s sizzling residential real estate market over the past two years. Northern transplants moved to the state and “what they brought with them was their ability to pay prices in our neighborhoods that we’d never seen before.”

And, pre-Save Our Homes, Florida’s Constitution required appraisers to reevaluate property at 100% market value each year.

“It was creating a great disparity as to what people could afford,” Wilkinson said.

Not everybody is piqued about the larger tax bill.

Phillip Russell, a labor and employment attorney, said he knew when he bought his Dunedin home last year that he’d pay more in property taxes than his neighbors.

”Everybody pays by the same equation,” he said. “That’s why I think it’s fair. You get a (tax) rate and a value on your home. The fact my home is more valuable than it was 20 years ago isn’t my neighbors’ fault.”

Russell’s property tax bill this year will be nearly triple what one household down the street will get, but he said he recognizes that the law will help him too, the longer he owns the place.

Calabro derisively called the amendment “Save Our Waterfront Homes” in the 1990s, arguing then that the wealthiest homeowners would be the greatest beneficiaries. He hasn’t changed his opinion.

“It really, disproportionately, helps larger-valued homes that are primary residences. The little guy, they still get a benefit, but not nearly as proportionate as the very wealthy,” he said.

Habitat for Humanity of Hillsborough, which builds low-income homes with the aid of the sweat equity of their future owners, provides a case in point. The owner of a Habitat home near Interstate 4 in Ybor City and completed in 2021, must pay a property tax bill on the appraised market value of the house at $164,000.

In Davis Islands, the owner of a home on Bosphorous Avenue is paying a bill based on a taxable value of less than $255,000 even though the market value is listed at more than $1.5 million. The Save Our Homes exemption removed $1.2 million from the appraised value in 2022.

“In order to get services in an area, there’s got to be taxes. We get it,” said Tina Forcier, CEO of Habitat for Humanity of Hillsborough. “It’s just that it’s gotten so significant because of the rising prices.”

Times staff writers Charlie Frago and Colleen Wright contributed to this report.