A tax revolt that was only revolting
By PHILIP GAILEY
Published October 29, 2006
I've been a disgruntled taxpayer over the years but never a tax protester. This year, however, I was swept up in the popular revolt against Florida's soaring property taxes and before I knew it, I was filing an appeal of my tax assessment. I now realize how naive I was to think I had a case. My first encounter with the county taxing powers was Dien Bien Phu, a rout.
When I received my "TRIM notice" on a second house we own in St. Petersburg, I was shocked that its assessed value had increased by almost one-third in a single year. Unlike a primary residence, second homes are not eligible for a homestead exemption or for the Save Our Homes cap that limits increases in property assessments to 3 percent a year. Second homes are sitting ducks for the tax man. I know, people who own more than one house are not a particularly sympathetic class. But small businesses and landlords are in the same boat.
After filing my appeal, I received a letter from some entity called the Value Adjustment Board informing me of the time and place of my hearing. The letter also made it clear that while the pope may not be infallible, the property appraiser is. "State law presumes the property appraiser is right and you must prove him wrong," the letter said.
Another document said: "The issue in any action challenging a tax assessment is the amount of the assessment and not the methodology utilized in arriving at the valuation. An appraiser may reach the correct result for the wrong reason." It added that "the fact that the taxpayer's valuation may be better is no basis for overturning property appraiser's presumptively valid assessment."
I wasn't sure what all this meant, but it did make me wonder: Is President Bush modeling his Guantanamo military tribunals after Florida's property tax appeal system?
I showed up for my hearing before the Value Adjustment Board not knowing what to expect. In addition to the special magistrate, who presided over the hearing and made the final decision, four other county officials, including a tax appraiser, sat around the table. They wore serious faces and proceeded with cold efficiency. I knew I was toast when I saw one of them crank up the computer in front of him.
After I raised my right hand and swore an oath to tell the truth, the magistrate told me I would have to present "overwhelming evidence" to overcome the appraiser's decision. At this point, I figured it was going to be a waste of everyone's time but that I might as well go through the process to better understand the system.
I asked how could it be that the assessment on the house in question could have increased by almost one-third in a single year, during a time when the real estate market was cooling down? I was told the assessment was based on the house's fair market value as of Jan. 1, 2006. Even if the housing market had collapsed in February, the magistrate said, my assessment would be the same. I would have to wait until next year to request an adjustment. Should I have apologized for asking such a dumb question?
I also was curious about the appraiser's use of "comparable sales" to determine a house's market value. They refused to even consider my examples of comparable houses that I compiled with the help of a real estate agent. My house, it was explained, was just inside the historic Old Northeast, which the appraiser described as a "prestigious neighborhood" commanding higher prices. Therefore, only sales in the Old Northeast could be used for comparable value purposes.
Never mind that larger houses across the street and in nearby blocks that had sold for prices below the assessed value of my two-bedroom, one-bath bungalow. Those houses were excluded as "comps" because they are on the other side of an invisible line separating the Old Northeast from North St. Pete, the appraiser explained.
I gave up, and it didn't take the magistrate long to render her decision. "Your petition is denied," she said.
Well, of course, it was. The outcome was all but preordained by the tax laws written by the Legislature, which has been cutting taxes on the wealthy while shifting more of the burden for funding public schools to local property taxes. I guess my complaint is really with the politicians in Tallahassee more than with the infallible bureaucrats in the tax assessor's office.
Oh well, I did score one small victory. I was able to convince the tax assessor that the fireplace, which by his calculation added $2,500 to the house's value, did not exist. How could it? There is no chimney.
[Last modified October 28, 2006, 09:51:26]
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