Smith saga sparks two bills

A county appraiser's property would get an outside review.

By THERESA BLACKWELL, Times Staff Writer
Published October 30, 2007

Another reform suggested in the wake of Pinellas County's controversial purchase of Property Appraiser Jim Smith's land is moving forward at the state level.

At the request of prosecutors, Pinellas lawmakers have filed bills to require that tax assessments on property owned by county property appraisers get independent scrutiny.

The bills come as Pinellas officials are taking steps to move their real estate division to a place within county government where it can operate free of interference.

Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, filed Senate Bill 512 this month. The bill would require the Florida Department of Revenue to review the tax assessment value of any property owned by a county property appraiser.

The idea, Fasano said in a statement, was to make sure that no public official, especially a property appraiser, receives "special consideration."

In June, Smith sold a 1.5-acre lot he owned to Pinellas County for $225,000. That was nearly four times the assessed value that Smith's own office had put on the property in 2006.

Smith maintains he did nothing wrong and did not improperly influence the tax assessment his office set for the land he sold the county.

But a grand jury that scrutinized the deal called the proper valuation of Smith's property "one of the most perplexing areas" it considered.

In 1994, the year Smith bought the land, his office estimated that it was 32 percent uplands and had a taxable value of $22,500.

A year later, Smith's office trimmed the amount of uplands to 16 percent and reduced the taxable value to $14,500.

Classifying some of Smith's property as valuable uplands and the rest as undevelopable wetlands "would dramatically affect the overall parcel's value," the grand jury said in a report released in August.

The grand jury's report also noted that the change in classification came "after Smith had met personally with the employee his office had assigned to evaluate his property and shown her a site plan showing the very limited area which could be built on."

The grand jury suggested that Pinellas legislators propose a law requiring an independent review of assessments on any property in which any county property appraiser has an interest.

State Attorney Bernie McCabe asked Fasano to consider filing the bill, said Greg Giordano, Fasano's chief legislative assistant.

If the bill becomes law, real estate owned privately by a property appraiser still would be assessed first for tax purposes by his or her own staff. Then the Department of Revenue would review the assessment.

"It's putting in a check and balance," Giordano said.

Rep. Peter Nehr, R-Tarpon Springs, filed a very similar bill in September, only to find that Rep. Ed Hooper, R-Clearwater, had filed a bill addressing the same issue a few days earlier.

"Rep. Hooper beat me to the punch," Nehr said Monday, so he has withdrawn his bill and will co-sponsor Hooper's House Bill 127.

"We don't want the taxpayer getting hurt again," Nehr said.

The House bill differs from the Senate bill in that it would allow a property appraiser to choose whether to have the state Department of Revenue or an appraiser in another county review their assessments.

On Monday, Smithcalled the bills "feel-good bills" that overreact to what happened here.

Having a property appraiser review the assessment of property in another county would be a bad idea, Smith said. The property appraiser would not know the local real estate market, or the appraisal procedures and protocol in a different county.

"Most realistic thing, if necessary," he said, "would be for the Department of Revenue to review those properties when they do their in-depth audit every year.

"If it ain't broke, don't fix it," Smith said. "This is all really a knee-jerk reaction to what happened here."

Times staff writer Theresa Blackwell can be reached at tblackwell@sptimes.com or 727 445-4170.