More oversight wanted for tax breaks given to developers

Reporter: Peter Fleischer Writer: Matthew Seaver
Published: Updated:

There’s no shortage of projects and growth in downtown Fort Myers. New high-rises seemingly pop up on every corner.

Some of these developments might only be going up because the city helped make them happen.

Michele Hylton-Terry, Executive Director of the Fort Myers Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA), said, “the purpose of the CRA is to increase the tax base and help remove slum and blight.”

To eventually increase that tax base, Hylton-Terry said they provide low-interest loans and tax rebates.

In just the last year. The CRA provided rebates for five different projects across the area.

In the case of a tax rebate, developers ask for a set dollar amount. A CRA-contracted outside expert makes a recommendation. Then the CRA approves a final rebate.

Fort Myers resident Gene Gibson said, “they’ve focused primarily on luxury buildings.”

Gibson has lived in Fort Myers for years and watches the CRA’s spending closely, even writing several op-ed articles.

He didn’t hold back when describing their spending habits.

“Abusive. A CRA can be an innovative program that can help, but there are a lot of tools in the chest,” said Gibson.

Fort Myers Mayor Kevin Anderson said, “it allows incentive for a developer to come into an area that is not attractive to other developers.”

Mayor Anderson, head of the CRA, supports the concept but wants to hire a full-time underwriter to evaluate projects and double-check the math.

“Long-term, I don’t think anyone is looking out for the city itself,” said Anderson. “We’ve got three or four figures, I just want to make sure the figure we settle on is absolutely the right figure.”

“He is 100% on the mark with that. Too often the city council just accepts what the developer says is their profit margin,” said Gibson.

CRA Commissioner Fred Burson doesn’t believe a full-time underwriter’s necessary. “We pay these individuals on a fee basis. I think they represent us adequately. I think it’s still cheaper to do it on a case-by-case basis than pay an individual full-time.”

Anderson says he’s excited about all the new development Fort Myers has seen but he won’t vote for another dollar of rebates until someone runs the numbers with the city’s best interests in mind.

“I want to make sure that we’re acting in the best interests of the citizens and that we’re comfortable that the numbers have been presented to us are absolutely spot on,” said Anderson.

It’s important to note, the tax rebate money comes after developers have paid their city and county tax bill, and it’s paid back after project checkpoints are met.

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