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New property tax appeals process could surprise homeowners

By Toluse Olorunnipa, Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau

TALLAHASSEE — Thousands of Florida homeowners may soon be in for a rude awakening: appeals to reduce their property assessments will be automatically tossed out if they have not paid most of their property tax bill by March 31.

A new state law passed last year requires homeowners who challenge their property tax valuations to pay at least 75 percent of the disputed bill before the end of March. The penalty: automatic disqualification from the appeals process, which thousands of Floridians have used to save hundreds of dollars in taxes during the housing downturn.

"Most people on the street don't even know this is coming," said Barry Sharpe, president of Real Estate Tax Appeal Group in Miami-Dade County, where the change will have the biggest impact. "I have a feeling that people are going to flip when they find out about this."

Previously, homeowners who disputed the property appraiser's valuation could pay a $15 fee and not worry about paying the full bill until the petition process ran its course.

But during the recession, several property owners began gaming the system, using the appeals process to put off paying property taxes for several months, officials said. In Miami-Dade and Broward, the process was taking up to 18 months to resolve. That left school districts and local governments — which rely on property tax revenue — desperate for funds as millions of dollars remained tied up in a lengthy petition process.

Typically, when the Legislature proposes a rule change that will affect thousands of consumers statewide, it appropriates money to notify the public. HB 281, which passed last year, did not include such an appropriation, leaving local property appraisers and value adjustment boards to handle public awareness efforts.

Local officials have had varied levels of success in spreading the word. In South Florida, where most of the state's 250,000 annual property tax appeals take place, several residents said they were unaware of the change.

Scott Needelman, who owns three rental buildings in Miami Beach, said he can't remember getting any notice from the government.

"Maybe it was in the fine print somewhere, but I didn't see it," said Needelman, who learned about the change from a property tax appeals company he uses every year.

Sharpe, who has been handling property tax appeals for 30 years, said several low- and middle-income homeowners can't afford to hire a professional to handle their appeals and may be left in the dark.

"Who's going to suffer?" he asked. "The people who don't have money."

In Miami-Dade County, property tax newsletters sent out in August included a one-sentence notice of the change, and the information was placed on the county appraiser's website. Officials at Miami-Dade's Value Adjustment Board put up a sign at the petition office, and attached notifications to the petition forms.

Broward County Property Appraiser Lori Parrish said she did not include a notice on homeowners' tax forms, since counties' independent value adjustment boards are responsible for handling tax appeals.

Value adjustment board officials from Hillsborough and Broward counties did not respond to requests for comment.

As the March 31 deadline approaches, it is unclear how many homeowners across the state have not made the minimum 75 percent payment.

While the new law forces property owners to pay more upfront, it offers an olive branch for those who comply: If the appeal process later finds that you overpaid, the government will refund your money, plus 12 percent interest.

"Obviously, I'd be all for that," said Needelman, who learned about the interest provision from a reporter.

Property appeals have more than doubled in the last five years, as a housing crash and a rash of foreclosures have made it difficult to accurately assess the true value of real estate. Looking to slash their property taxes in a down economy, thousands of Floridians have flocked to the county clerk to protest their assessments.

There were more than 250,000 property tax appeals in 2009, with about 100,000 of those taking place in Miami-Dade County. Broward came in second with almost 40,000 appeals. Next on the list were Hillsborough, Orange and Palm Beach counties, which had about 15,000 appeals apiece.

Rep. Ana Rivas Logan, R-Miami, who sponsored HB 281, said she filed the upfront payment legislation to help school districts. "This freed up approximately $30 million to Miami-Dade County schools in the first year alone," said Logan, who co-sponsored the bill with Sen. Rene Garcia, R-Miami.