By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.com
Miami-Dade property owners will find it much more difficult to contest their annual property assessments under a new guideline being considered by the Value Adjustment Board, a semi-governmental agency that mediates disputes between landowners and Property Appraiser Pedro Garcia, critics of the proposal claim.
Opponents argue the change, submitted to the board by Garcia’s office, violates both state law and rules set down by the Florida Department. Their reason: The appraiser’s office would no longer have to present evidence to back up how it arrived at a particular property’s assessed value. The higher the assessment the more taxes an individual or company has to pay even when the tax rate remains flat.
“It’s very important for taxpayers to have a process that protects their rights,” said Sheila Anderson, a Realtor who also specializes in property-tax appeals across the state. “If the property appraiser is allowed to write the rules, it tilts the scale in its favor. And it doesn’t comply with state law.”
Rafael Millares, the recently appointed general counsel for the Value Adjustment Board, or VAB, told Florida Bulldog that he is evaluating Garcia’s proposed rule change, as well as opinions submitted by attorneys who represent property owners before the board. Millares said he will likely issue his opinion on the matter after the New Year.
“I am new here so I have been doing a lot of research and going over what was left over from the previous VAB counsel,” he said. “So it is going to take a while. My plan is to produce a memo that conforms to the law.”
Lazaro Solis, Miami-Dade’s deputy property appraiser, dismissed critics’ concerns. “We are not doing anything that we believe is legally incorrect, unfair or unjust to a property owner,” Solis told the Bulldog. “Our attorneys say we are within our rights [to propose the change]. We don’t believe that this negatively impacts property owners in any way.”
In order to figure out each property owner’s annual tax bill, the property appraisers in every Florida county are bound by law to assess the market value of every parcel. An owner who believes a property has been given a higher value than it is worth can appeal directly to appraiser or skip right to the VAB.
Over the last two months, Anderson and real estate tax attorneys have been lobbying Millares to reject the property appraiser’s assertion that it only has to submit a property record card, which contains general information about a parcel such as sales history and appraisal values, and provide general comments about its assessment techniques.
State law violation?
In a Nov. 22 letter to Millares, Miami lawyer Jeffrey Mandler argued the property appraiser’s conclusion violates state law and administrative rules as well as Florida Department of Revenue guidelines and the statewide uniform 2016 VAB training manual. “Since 2009, the property appraiser had to provide written evidence demonstrating how it utilized and relied on income and sales and how it arrived at its value conclusion for the specific property,” Mandler wrote. “This would include the actual income analysis for the property and the sales it relied upon to assess the subject property.”
Mandler, who did not return two phone messages and an email seeking comment, claimed the property appraiser’s office now wants authorization to submit only “cursory” evidence to establish a “presumption of correctness” in arriving at a property’s market value. “This change is both detrimental to taxpayers and fundamentally unfair,” Mandler wrote.
In a Dec. 6 response to Mandler’s letter, Jorge Martinez-Esteve, a Miami-Dade County assistant attorney representing the property appraiser, disputed the real estate tax lawyer’s assertions. Martinez-Esteve said Garcia is only asking that Millares follow a guideline that his two previous predecessors accepted as sufficient for defending against owners appealing assessments.
“At any VAB hearing, the property appraiser’s office is only required to introduce evidence regarding the mass appraisal techniques used by the property appraiser’s office to arrive at the assessment,” Martinez-Esteve wrote. “The property appraiser is not required to introduce any evidence regarding the single appraisal of the subject property.”
Since Miami-Dade has more than a million properties, conducting single appraisals for every parcel would be impractical, Solis told the Bullldog. So the property appraiser’s office conducts mass appraisals, a process of valuing a group of properties through a mathematical analysis of market data, to determine a specific parcel’s fair market value, Solis said.
He added the property appraiser is not looking to make property owners pay more in property taxes. “If a reduction is warranted when we are reviewing a case, we offer it,” he said. “We are always looking out for the property owner. We don’t have a reason to go against them unless we believe the assessment is correct.”
Nevertheless, Anderson said the property appraiser is making it harder for owners to appeal assessments by pushing Millares to adopt its request. “Miami-Dade is a big place so they will make mistakes,” she said. “Now they want to come into a VAB hearing, wave a piece of paper in the air and claim they did everything correctly. That’s not showing evidence. It is empty rhetoric.”