About $150 million owed in property taxes

Property owners this year failed to pay taxes on time on a record 58,000 parcels in Lee County, totaling more than $150 million in unpaid taxes, an indication of Southwest Florida’s floundering economy.

That means taxes on almost 10 percent of all county parcels are delinquent. Included as delinquent are people going through foreclosure but not those who have filed for bankruptcy.

Collier County experienced a record year as well, with 13,309 parcels advertised totaling about $50 million.

"That is staggering," said Mike Hagen, a former Lee County appraiser turned owner of TaxCuts1 Inc., in Fort Myers. "What it tells me is real estate values have tanked; people are hurting."

Last year, Lee County advertised about 43,000 parcels totaling $101 million in delinquent taxes. In 2006, it was 31,000 parcels and $48 million.

That means delinquent tax dollars are up 211 percent in two years.

Many delinquent properties are vacant in areas such as Lehigh Acres, Cape Coral and Bokeelia.

Tax certificates are used when an owner doesn’t pay on time. A lien is placed on the property and the certificate is sold at auction. Someone buying those certificates pays the taxes, but property owners can buy back the certificates with fees and interest.
The public has a chance to purchase tax certificates at the 8 a.m. May 30 online auction. The News-Press will publish the delinquent tax advertising section Monday and again May 19 and 26.

Property owners redeemed about 14,000 certificates from the 2006 tax sale and 16,000 from last year’s.

Unpaid taxes combined with other telltale figures to reveal the economic slump in the area. The median price of an existing single-family home has fallen 34 percent since December 2005, from $322,300 to $212,500 in March, the last month available. More than 15,000 foreclosure actions are pending in Lee County circuit court.

Jean Belizaire, 53, said his home in Cape Coral is going through foreclosure. He moved from Miami in mid-2006 when his brother-in-law said it was a strong real estate market. Belizaire couldn’t pay this year’s $4,112 tax bill on the home he bought in mid-2006 for $60,000 more than the county’s most recent appraisal. The licensed Realtor who worked independently said he last sold a home in February 2007.

In July, his wife of 30 years had a stroke, he said. Her insurance expired after three months, and she continues to recover in Miami with their daughter. Belizaire said he plans to move in with his daughter this month, but not until his 13-year-old son who lives with him, finishes the school year.

Belizaire had no success finding another job.

"I have plenty of friends right here, they lost their job and can’t find another one, I have three that have lost their homes already," Belizaire said. "It’s tough. Real tough."
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