Mortgage tax break may be on the chopping block, leaving the housing recovery in question.

Could vacation home or high end communities across Central Florida suffer if the government eliminates the mortgage interest deduction?

FOUR CORNERS – For years, Central Florida’s economy boomed thanks to “growth” – the notion that people moving to this region needed new homes, so builders stayed happily employed constructing developments to meet their needs.
The state and national housing market still haven’t recovered from the bursting of the bubble in 2008 that left the state with one of the highest home foreclosure rates in the country, and the climb back to a stable market has been slow and painful.
Even so, any signs of a possible threat to the market make local Realtors feel nervous, and that’s certainly true with a proposal by a federal deficit reduction commission to take aim at the mortgage interest deducation that homeowners now take advantage of.
This deduction allows taxpayers who own their homes to reduce their taxable income by the amount of interest paid on their mortgage. The White House’s deficit reduction commission has proposed gutting some tax breaks, including the mortgage interest deduction, as a way to close the nation’s skyrocketing budget deficit.
That’s a proposal that some real estate agents worry may be misguided at a time when the housing market still hasn’t recovered.
“As far as homeownership, one of the sticking points for us is the mortgage interest deduction,” said Pete Howlett, a Davenport Realtor who runs Orlando Vacation Realty. “The government is thinking about getting rid of that, and that may impact the tax deductibility of people’s homes. That’s something they’re kicking around, and we’re pretty concerned about that.”
It should be a concern to Central Florida, said Matthew Bell, managing member of the CPA firm Bell & Van Grondelle in Four Corners.
The two groups most likely to be impacted, Bell said, are people who own vacation homes, and those in communities where houses start at $500,000 and up – both of which are easy to find in Central Florida.
“Probably 80 percent of the clients that we deal with get some kind of benefit from the mortgage interest deduction,” Bell said. “That is one of the factors that goes into play when Realtors talk to clients about buying a home. From what I can see, what they’re proposing is not really going to affect rental homes so much. That would be considered a necessary business expense.
“But it would apply to people who buy vacaction homes that they’re not renting out,” Bell added. “And I’m sure there are plenty of them.”
Four Corners has been a popular spot for vacation homes among British and other European buyers. But Bell added that the tax policy change, if enacted, “would actually affect Americans even more than folks overseas, because normally Brits are not going to have any other income they need to offset from vacation homes. But Americans want to be able to deduct the mortgage interest from a vacation home off their income taxes. That deducition would go away if this proposal went through. I certainly think it could hurt this area.”
The proposal, Bell said, also appears to be targeting high end developments.
“They (homeowners) would only be able to deduct the mortage interest on their primary residence for homes under $500,000,” he said. “Look at the New York or New Jersey metropolitan area where housing is very expensive, and those people would lose their mortgage interest deduction on their most expensive homes.”
It could also impact high end luxury developments in Central Florida, he said.
“Take, for instance, Bella Collina in Lake County,” Bell said. “There’s homes in there that at one pioint sold for over $5 million. People looking to possibly repurchase those homes, that will slow the redevelopment of those communities.”
State Rep. Mike Horner, R-St. Cloud, said he would need to research the issue some more before commenting on how it could impact Central Florida.
But he added that it points up two huge challenges for Congress and the White House: how to bring down the deficit without doing something that hurts the economy in the short run – such as raising taxes.
“We’ve got an exploding federal deficit and completely unmanaged debt that is ruining our country’s financial security,” Horner said. “I’m for things that reduce the deficit.”
But at the same time, he added, eliminating the mortgage interest deduction could simply amount to a tax hike for homeowners.
“I’m against raising new taxes,” he said.
Peg Dunmire, chairman of the Florida Tea Party and host of the Lady Liberty Hour, said she also opposes tax increases. But she said eliminating not just the mortgage interest tax deduction but also scores of other special interest tax breaks could solve a larger purpose: to eliminate the federal government’s ability to use tax policy to control people’s decision-making.
“Actually, the mortgage interest deduction is a common example of corporate welfare,” Dunmire said. “Anybody who has a home has been able to deduct the interest for many years. It used to be that all interest for any source of borrowing was a deduction. When people purchased cars, when they had credit cards, everybody was always able to deduct their interest. That changed in the 1980s when they redid the IRS code, and then it only got limited to mortgages.”
Getting rid of this deduction won’t do much to eliminate the federal debt, Dunmire added, but it could help empower consumers if the federal government took a cue from the Tea Party and instead adopted a Fair tax, or tax on goods sold – a kind of national sales tax that eliminates the complexities of today’s lengthy tax code.
“I don’t look at it as a rich versus poor issue, as much as what are we trying to do with our society,” Dunmire said. “What are we trying to encourage? In the past, we as a society have tried to really encourage home ownership, but I personally think they should look at all the ways the government has tried to influence the housing market — and made a mess of it. I am an advocate for the Fair Tax. I am all for doing away with all of these deductions, which are the government trying to make decisions on how we live, rather than all of us deciding how we live. This is all about a government policy to have you behave in a certain way. We are using our government policies to influence how people make decisions, and it corrupts and alters sound decision making.
“The way it is now,” Dunmire added, “the tax codes are designed for special interest groups. It is being done for all the wrong reasons. With the end of these tax deductions, no one is a special interest anymore. We’re all just consumers.”

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Without federal disaster funding, LASER reaches out to the community for help.

Like much of Lake County, Groveland is known for its picturesque lakes. But nature took a deadlier turn on Jan. 25 when a storm packing heavy winds damaged 30 homes in the city's downtown neighborhood.

GROVELAND –When storms came through Central Florida on Jan. 25, for most residents it meant heavy rain, strong winds, and slow, messy traffic on the highways. Some of the less fortunate lost power.
But for 30 homeowners in the town of Groveland, it turned out to be much worse.
The fast moving storm, packing winds of up to 70 miles per hour, proved particularly destructive on a 1.5 mile stretch of the town that included Ashley Street, Catherine Lane and Stina Avenue. The heavy winds torn up some roofs and toppled trees, forcing the American Red Cross Mid-Florida Region to find local hotels to put up three families whose homes were destroyed.
“There’s a few streets that got hit, but the major damage was done on Ashley Street,” said Michael Tart. “The majority of the damage was done there, on the street right behind the Ace Hardware store. It’s a little dead end street, right in downtown, and there’s around $600,000 worth of damage that’s been estimated. That could be anything from some shingles blown off to the house being destroyed.”
Tart is the executive director LASER, or the Lake And Sumter Emergency Recovery program. As the residents of Ashley Street struggle to cope with the damage done to their homes, LASER is calling on the general public to assist them. The agency is asking for donations from the community for families who sustained damage to their homes during the Jan. 25 storm.
LASER is a not-for-profit agency based in Eustis, and partners with the United Way of Lake & Sumter Counties to help raise money. One hundred percent of funds received will go toward facilitating the repair and rebuilding of damaged homes.
“We are a 501c agency, designated by the county,” Tart said. “During a declared disaster, we can apply to receive funds to help people who are uninsured or underinsured – the elderly, disabled, single parents, some type of special need. We do not have any funds at this time, so we have solicited the public for donations. There are some families down there that have seen their homes destroyed by this storm, and we want them to be able to put their lives back together as it was before the storm.”
Because the Jan. 25 storm wasn’t a declared disaster at the state or federal level, no monetary assistance is available for these families. Some of them, he added, didn’t have homeowners insurance.
“Our goal is to help these residents get back on their feet, and the only way we can do this is through the help of the community,” he said.
To make a donation, people can send a check made payable to Lake And Sumter Emergency Recovery, Inc. (LASER) to 27 E. Pinehurst Blvd. Suite B, Eustis, FL 32726. Another option is to stop by any Lake County SunTrust branch and drop off a check made payable to United Way of Lake & Sumter Counties Disaster Account.
“The bad part about it is you could have insurance, but just not have enough insurance to cover it if you’re affected,” he said. “If you don’t have enough coverage on your home, it may not be a declared disaster, but it’s still a disaster to you and your family.”
Lake County has been hard hit by storms and natural disasters in the past seven years. In September 2004, Hurricanes Frances and Jeanne struck the region. In February 2007, a tornado struck northern Lake County, causing considerable damage to some communities there. In September 2009 a small tornado went through downtown Eustis, then this recent storm hit Groveland.
“We‘ve not had much luck with natural disasters,” Tart said.
The Lake County commissioners created LASER shortly after the 2004 hurricanes to strengthen recovery efforts from any future disasters in Lake and Sumter counties.
For more information about LASER, log on to www.laserfl.com.
“They are welcome to visit our Web site, or they can call us on our phone number at 352-385-2525 if they want to sign up for some volunteer opportunities,” Tart said. “If we have something happen in the future, that volunteer work could be putting tarps on roofs, or helping skilled labor repair homes, or cleaning debris out of yards. The other thing is we also facilitate the Medical Reserve Corp and we’ll be looking for volunteers for that. We have a lot of volunteer activities.”

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Former Osceola County commission candidate alleges election fraud.

Armando Ramirez says fraud cost him the office of Osceola County commissioner last November.

KISSIMMEE – For years, Armando Ramirez worked in the New York City Police Department, where he was assigned to the New York Attorney’s Office. His job was to help root out corruption in high places.
“We locked up judges,” he said. “I did a lot of undercover work.”
Now retired and a resident of Kissimmee, Ramirez is working on an entirely new investigation – only it’s one much closer to home. He’s put together a team made up of family members and supporters to root out what he considers corruption within the halls of Osceola County’s municipal government. His main target: election fraud, particularly the election he lost last November when he challenged Osceola County Commissioner John Quinones. It turned out to be a race thin result: Ramirez got 4,213 votes to Quinones’ 4,269 votes — a margin of just 56 votes.
Ramirez said he went on bed on election night believing he had won.
“That night, I was getting good results from the TV networks,” he said. “By 11 o’clock, they had declared me the winner.”
But the next day, it was Quinones who was declared the winner by the Osceola County Supervisor of Elections Office.
“This is the reason why I was so shocked,” Ramirez said. “They claimed they found additional absentee ballots. I was astonished.”
Ramirez has filed a lawsuit in federal court alleging fraud and irregularities in that election, and is asking the court to void the results and order a new election for Osceola County Commission District 2.
“My lawsuit claims lots of irregularities occurred,” he said. “It is like camouflaging fraud and outrageous conduct perpetrated by the Supervisor of Elections office. I know they had stolen my election.”
Ramirez said he now plans to fight back.
“I focus on finding justice to regain the seat I lost through fraudulent conduct,” he said.
Amber Smith, spokeswoman for the office of Osceola County Supervisor of Elections Mary Jane Arrington, said her office does not comment on pending litigation.
“At this point, because it’s an ongoing lawsuit, the office does not have a comment,” Smith said. “When everything is cleared up, we will definitely have a comment.”
Ramirez, who moved to Florida in 1989, is known as a community activist. He’s run for public office numerous times, including local offices in Kissimmee. Last year’s bid for the Osceola County commission seat was the closest race he ever ran.
“My platform was to be able to restore integrity for the county,” Ramirez said. “A lot of the small business owners came to me and said the commissioners were outsourcing contracts to outside vendors,” thus cutting local businesses out of the picture. Ramirez said he wanted to shake up what he considered to be a good old boy network operating county government.
He knew he was an underdog, having just $3,000 to spend on the campaign. Instead, he did an intensive door to door campaign, getting out and meeting the voters directly.
“The people were very receptive,” he said. “I never had to carry water with me. They gave me water. Occasionally they fed me. The people were very, very happy to see me. They were surprised I was knocking on their door.”
Although 2010 was a very bad year for his fellow Democrats, Ramirez said he had reason to believe he would win, although he believed the county’s top political leaders badly wanted him to lose.
“I’m dedicated to serving the people, I’m not doing this just for myself,” he said. “This is the reason why I am not a popular person in Osceola County. They accused me of being pro-Hispanic, and the rest of the people could go to hell, and that’s not true.”
After losing by a razor thin margin, Ramirez requested a recount, but four years ago the Florida Legislature overhauled the state’s elections law, making it harder to argue for a recount. That was a result of the 2000 presidential election, in which Democrat Al Gore lost this state to Republican George W. Bush by just 500 votes, leading to a lengthy recount battle.
“They said that ever since the great fiasco in the state of Florida in 2000, they made it more difficult for candidates to challenge election results,” Ramirez said. “I knew they had stolen my election, and I was trying to get an automatic recount that would resolve everything. They didn’t want to comply with my request.”
Ramirez also believes 304 votes didn’t get counted, possibly because election officials challenged the right of voters from the county’s minority-majority precincts, questioning whether they were legally registered at the right address.
“Usually the politicians who are in power target neighborhoods where they see minorities – it could be Hispanics, Haitians, whatever – and this is done very maliciously,” Ramirez said. “They look for ways to change their house numbers so they have a problem voting.
“This is so complex, I have been compelled to form a special team,” Ramirez added. “This is a team of volunteers using my son, my wife, and some of my supporters who have volunteered their time to help me.”
Ramirez said this isn’t a matter of being a sore loser in such a close election.
“I have never been a sore loser,” he said. “Winning is not everything, and failure is not the end of the road.
“I only want justice to be done,” Ramirez added. “I want a judge to give me a fair trial. A judge could examine my claims and be able to throw out those absentee ballots that were the culprit. I have the proof. I have the evidence. Believe me, this is not just empty talking.”

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