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Hidden shutter cost alights

The protection, which may become law, comes with a tax punch.

Published April 12, 2007

Tony Kuusela, 43, of Madeira Beach walks past two of his hurricane shutters. His home has 14 doors and windows, not including the garage door. He says he plans on spending a total of $28,000 to $30,000 to protect them by the time he is finished.
[Times photo: Scott Keeler]

A state proposal to require many Florida homeowners to buy storm shutters faces rising criticism from residents who say such mandatory purchases will increase their property taxes by driving up the value of their homes.

Shutters are so important against hurricanes that Tallahassee lawmakers are considering a plan to require coastal homeowners to buy them before they get a building permit or a Citizens Property Insurance policy.

That's rubbing many Floridians the wrong way. They argue homeowners should not be required to buy shutters and then also pay for the resulting higher property taxes.

"It's a slap in the face to get taxed for doing something right - fortifying our homes," said Tony Kuusela, who paid about $6,200 to install three electric roll-down shutters at his Madeira Beach home. "Shouldn't there be a tax benefit for that?"

Kuusela recently discovered that because of the shutters, the taxable value of his home had risen by $3,875. So based on the millage rate in Madeira Beach, the shutter portion of his tax bill will be about $70 this year.

Trouble is, he has 11 more shutters to install.

"If you live in the home a long time," Kuusela said Wednesday, "you'll end up paying for the shutters twice."

In Tallahassee, lawmakers pushing the shutters measure acknowledged that the added burden was unintended.

Sen. Bill Posey, R-Rockledge, chairman of the Banking and Insurance Committee and sponsor of a bill that would tie buying shutters to getting building permits and Citizens policies, said Wednesday that he hoped to file an amendment to the bill that addresses the added tax.

"We're going to make it so you can't assess for shutters," Posey said.

A sympathetic ear

That can't happen soon enough for Pinellas County Property Appraiser Jim Smith. Many of the houses that would be affected by Posey's plan - those homes assessed at more than $300,000 and in coastal areas - are in Pinellas.

"It's the principle of the thing," Smith said. "If the government ends up requiring it, I will probably find some way to reduce that value. They lawmakers can't have their cake and eat it, too."

But to a large extent, Smith's hands are tied. Only the Legislature can make exemptions to property tax law.

Touted by lawmakers as a significant tool to end the state's insurance crisis, hurricane shutters are designed to keep wind, water and debris out of a home, to help keep the roof from blowing away and to make the home more attractive to potential buyers.

While lawmakers zero in on coastal homeowners, any Florida homeowner choosing to buy shutters could see an increase in property taxes.

And it's not just government officials who are pushing shutters.

"We know shutters will help you survive a hurricane and make it a lot more likely your home won't be destroyed," said Sam Miller, executive vice president of the Florida Insurance Council, the state's largest property insurance trade group. "And we offer premium discounts for shutters."

No guarantee

But such discounts vary throughout the industry. And because the discounts were never tied to property taxes, no one is sure if they would cover the added cost.

Matthew Perry was among the first homeowners to catch on to the shutter tax hike. The assessed value of Perry's Madeira Beach home went up by $13,750 after he installed shutters in 2005.

That's a tax increase, just for the shutters, of $253 a year.

Perry recently sent e-mails to Gov. Charlie Crist and dozens of lawmakers asking for a property tax exemption or even a credit for adding shutters.

"I can't believe no one saw this coming," Perry said. "To me, it's a question of jumping before you look."

Bureaucratic tangle

Asked if he considered a premium discount from his insurance company - Citizens Property - for putting up shutters to help offset the tax, Perry criticized the burden of paperwork involved and responded with a question of his own.

"Have you looked at a mitigation form? It's a nightmare. I'd have to get an engineer to come out and inspect my home, and that alone would cost a couple hundred dollars," he said. "This is a mess."

Times staff writer Jennifer Liberto contributed to this report. Tom Zucco can be reached at (727) 893-8247.

[Last modified April 11, 2007, 23:29:36]

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