A state performance audit of county boards that hear property tax appeals by unhappy homeowners and businesses says appeals appear to have been rigged by local government officials more interested in safeguarding tax revenues than fairly valuing real estate.
Value Adjustment Boards are ostensibly independent decision-making authorities where taxpayers can appeal a property appraiser’s assessment. Yet county and school board interests dominate them.
“Independence in the appeal process at the local level may have been compromised due to local officials involved in the process who may not have been impartial and whose operations are funded with the same property tax revenue at stake in the appeal process,” says the audit released without fanfare this month by Florida Auditor General David W. Martin.
“Rigged is the very word that a lot of people are using,” said Tallahassee attorney Benjamin K. Phipps, a veteran expert on property tax matters. “They rig it by making sure that the taxpayers don’t get a fair shot, though not in Miami-Dade because they have the only system in the state that’s really fair.”
BROWARD VAB TRACKED SPECIAL MAGISTRATES
In Broward, the audit says the county Value Adjustment Board compiled “tracking reports” on special magistrates who recommended large reductions in property assessments to the VAB and used them to get rid of six magistrates who had given the highest assessment reductions to taxpayers.
“These reports identified and tracked, by special magistrate, those special magistrates who recommended property assessment reductions that either exceeded 50 percent of the original property assessment or exceeded $200,000,” says the audit. The VAB used the information “when considering continuing the special magistrate’s service in the subsequent year.”
An unidentified former special magistrate filed a complaint with the Florida Department of Revenue, which oversees county VABs, exposing Broward’s practice in October 2012. Asked about it by the state, VAB lawyer Monroe Kiar responded that the practice was legal, “but did not address the issues of transparency and influence on the special magistrates,” the audit says.
Broward Commissioner Stacy Ritter chairs the county’s VAB. In an April 30 response letter to the Auditor General, Ritter defended the VAB and noted that it had discontinued the practice of targeting special magistrates last year.
“It should be noted that at all times the Broward County VAB has been transparent and has never unduly influenced the decision of any special magistrate,” Ritter’s response says.
“We all really believe they stopped that, of course,” Phipps said with sarcasm. “So how come the same guys (special magistrates) are still there?”
Property taxes in Florida make up about 50 percent of public education funding and 30 percent of local government revenues, according to the 20-page audit. In 2011, the latest year for which statistics are available, more than 140,000 tax adjustment petitions were filed in Florida.
The audit, however, doesn’t say how many taxpayers in South Florida and elsewhere were apparently overcharged, or how much in taxes were improperly collected by taxing authorities from cities, counties, school boards and special districts including the South Florida Water Management District. Likewise, the audit does not address whether tax refunds can or should be made.
As an example the mindset of VAB officials who place an “inappropriate emphasis on preserving property tax revenues,” the audit quotes remarks by Hillsborough County Commissioner and VAB chair Sandra Murman at a July 21, 2011 county VAB meeting.
“What you need to look at is the end game because every review costs us money (and) it affects the tax roll. We allow…millions of dollars to be taken off the tax rolls through additional review, the whole VAB process…” Murman said. “I think you have to kind of keep that in mind because as you know and I know where you are educating children, and I’m trying to take care of the needs in the county.”
AUDIT RECOMMENDS SHAKEUP
The audit recommended the Legislature consider a VAB shakeup to promote fairness for taxpayers who disagree with a property appraiser’s decisions regarding exemptions, classifications and value assessments. Its key recommendations:
- To promote integrity, establish “rules of conduct or ethical codes, with appropriate sanctions,” for VAB members and staff, including clerks, attorneys and special magistrates.
- Create a new process to appeal decisions by the VAB at the regional or state level.
- Require that the majority of VAB board members not be government officials from the county or school board. Today, county VABs have five members: two from the county commission; one from the school board and two citizens appointed by county commission and the school board.
The audit, conducted between September 2012 and September 2013, examined 15 VABs across the state that it said were representative of small, medium and large counties in Florida. Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties were included in the audit.
In 2011, Miami-Dade’s VAB saw, by far, the most taxpayer petitions filed – 91,519 – and granted 49 percent of them. In contrast, Broward’s VAB saw about 25,000 petitions and granted 18 percent of them. Palm Beach, with about 8400 petitions, granted 21 percent.
A central theme of the audit findings is that VABs often do not scrupulously follow state law or rules prescribed by the Department of Revenue, the state entity that oversees VABs.
For example, VABs aren’t supposed to hold hearings until their lawyers verify that it has met all legal requirements. Yet VABs in Miami-Dade, Palm Beach and nine other counties, couldn’t document for auditors that they’d made those verifications. Similarly, the Miami-Dade and Palm Beach VABs could produce no records showing they’d verified information supplied by their citizen members in written applications or oral statements.
DECISIONS WITHOUT REQUIRED INFO
Moreover, the audit found that VABs in Miami-Dade, Palm Beach and Broward had on multiple occasions issued written decisions that failed to include information required by law, such as findings of fact, conclusions of law and/or the reasons for upholding or overturning the property appraiser’s determination.
“Failure to include sufficient information in written decisions does not provide an adequate basis for decisions and does not promote fairness and equity in the appeal process,” the audit said.
Broward Commissioner Ritter took issue in her response letter with some of Auditor General’s recommended fixes, including the need for ethics rules.
“The Broward County VAB asserts that at all times its VAB members, special magistrates, members of staff, clerk and attorney have always conducted themselves in a high ethical manner,” Ritter’s response says.
“Broward County has concerns regarding the creation of a regional or state level appeal process,” Ritter said. She expressed similar concern about altering the composition of the board to lessen the clout of government officials on VAB decisions.
The county also doesn’t want to see a VAB citizen member or professional member sitting as the chairperson or alternate chairperson because they “may not have the same experience as a county government official or school board member would have in the chairperson seat,” Ritter’s response says.
But an “institutionalized” VAB is precisely the problem, said Phipps.
“Taxpayers go in thinking they are going to get due process and they come out very seriously disillusioned,” said Phipps. “The problem is when you have people who are depending on the tax revenues determining what tax revenues should be there is a tendency for them to be not all that interested in granting tax relief.”