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Date of Issue: October 27, 2005

Island voters disappearing, homestead exemptions rising

Maybe Island residents are apathetic over elections and are turning in their voter registration cards for a homeowner's exemption.

While the number of registered voters on Anna Maria Island declined by 822 (12.3 percent) from 2000 to 2005, the number of homestead exemptions during that same period rose by 116.

According to the Manatee County Property Appraisers Office, the number of homestead exemptions on the Island rose from 2,284 in 2000 to 2,450 in 2005, a gain - although modest - of 7.3 percent.

The number of homestead exemptions in Anna Maria rose from 612 to 682 during the five-year period, while Bradenton Beach exemptions climbed from 246 to 296 during the same five years. Only Holmes Beach, the largest of the three Island cities, had a drop, falling from 1,426 exemptions five years ago to 1,422 this year.

Island elected officials believe it's a case of absentee property owners choosing to make their Island home their permanent residence to take advantage of the homestead exemption and the fact that under Florida law, once a house is homesteaded, property taxes cannot increase more than 3 percent per year.

"I don't think we're gaining any population," said Holmes Beach Mayor Carol Whitmore. "People are just tired of paying those high taxes for their winter home. It's easier just to make the Island your permanent residence."

Figures from the U.S. Department of Commerce would seem to confirm Whitmore's belief that the Island is not gaining more people.

The latest DOC population estimates for the Island compared with the 2000 census show Anna Maria Island has had almost no population growth the past five years, gaining just 134 residents, according to the DOC.

The Island population has inched its way up from 8,262 people to 8,504 the past five years, an unimpressive 3-percent gain.

During that same period, the population of Manatee County increased by nearly 15 percent, adding about 35,000 people to surpass the 300,000 population mark this year, the census bureau estimated.

Holmes Beach has had a virtual population explosion since 2000, jumping from 4,966 residents to 5,100, a gain of 134 people in just five years.

Bradenton Beach has also had a population increase the past five years, rising from 1,482 people to 1,536, a jump of 54 people.

If that sounds like a people boom, it isn't. The 1990 U.S. Census counted 1,657 people in Bradenton Beach. The current population estimate represents a 10 percent decline in 15 years.

Anna Maria had little increase in population, gaining just 52 people in five years to reach an estimated 1,868 permanent population.

"That doesn't make sense," said Anna Maria Mayor SueLynn. "My feeling is that we're losing people to investors, not gaining homesteaded families."

One possible explanation for the decline in voter registration compared with the rise in homestead exemptions is that more and more nonresident homeowners could now be declaring their Island home as their permanent residence, yet continuing to maintain their northern homes - and voter registration location.

"If you live here six months and a day, you can declare you are a permanent resident and nobody checks," the mayor said. "There's no accountability."

She also suggested that some people who receive a homestead exemption might be tempted to "fudge" a bit on whether or not they live in the house for six months or more every year.

The figures are a bit "strange," conceded Whitmore, but she could not say positively it's because investors are switching residency to her city, but not actually moving and registering to vote.

Investors, she believes, are constantly buying homes and quietly converting them into seasonal or weekly rental units.

However, it would not surprise her if these investors maintained their Holmes Beach address as their permanent residence and garnered all the benefits of a homestead exemption and the 3-percent maximum annual tax increase, yet continued to live elsewhere.

"That would make sense," she added, "because I just don't believe we have a lot of families moving in on a permanent basis.

 "I've been trying for years to restrict this type of activity so that our city's homes can't function as motels," she said, and the issue will be addressed in the city's proposed comprehensive plan revisions currently being prepared by the planning commission.

Whitmore is also worried that fewer and fewer voters are deciding important issues and electing candidates to office.

"Will the day ever come when there's no one left to vote or run for office? I hope not," she said.

The dramatic drop in voters on Anna Maria Island in the past five years could give some credence to those who are worried the Island will one day be just a gigantic condominium for investors and winter visitors.

"I think it's all indicative of the fact that the Island is losing population to investors," Holmes Beach City Commissioner Don Maloney has said.

He also believes non-resident property owners are just taking advantage of Florida law to gain a homestead exemption and halt their rising property taxes. "I don't think for a minute we are increasing our population," he said.

Mayor John Chappie of Bradenton Beach, whose city has fewer than 1,000 registered voters and barely 1,500 residents, once said the city is in danger of becoming one large condominium.

"Just look around at all the small properties that have been converted the past few years to condominiums for rental units or second homes," he said. "We are in serious danger of losing our voting and population base."