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A Broward tale: Property taxes, politics and conflicting interests

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

Martin Kiar being sworn in as Broward Vice Mayor last year by his father Monroe Kiar. Photo: Mark O’Loughlin, TheWoodlandsTamarac.com

Martin Kiar being sworn in as Broward Vice Mayor last year by his father Monroe Kiar. Photo: Mark O’Loughlin, TheWoodlandsTamarac.com

Broward Vice Mayor Martin Kiar is beginning to look a lot like the county’s next property appraiser, but his political ambition already has created an apparent conflict of interest at the board that decides property tax appeals by homeowners and businesses.

Kiar’s father is Monroe Kiar, the $225,000-a-year lawyer for the Broward Value Adjustment Board (VAB) – the independent, quasi-judicial authority that reviews taxpayer appeals of exemptions, classifications and valuations set by the office of Property Appraiser Lori Parrish.

The VAB attorney advises the board on all aspects of its review process and the law. His job is to “ensure that the proceedings are fair and consistent with the law,” according to rules established by the Florida Department of Revenue.

But the elder Kiar’s independence is in question with Parrish’s decision to boost the younger Kiar’s campaign to succeed her by hosting a major backyard fundraiser and picnic at her Davie home on April 12.

“Contributions are limited to $1,000 per person or corporate entity,” says the invitation. “Please make checks payable to: Martin David Kiar Campaign.”

SPECIAL-INTEREST SUPPORTERS

Kiar filed paperwork to run for Broward Property Appraiser with the county’s Supervisor of Elections on March 2. So far, no one has challenged him.

2012 victory party for Property Appraiser Lori Parrish and Broward County Commissioner Martin Kiar. Also pictured, left, is Sunrise Commissioner Joseph Scuotto. Photo: TamaracTalk.com

2012 victory party for Property Appraiser Lori Parrish and Broward County Commissioner Martin Kiar. Also pictured, left, is Sunrise Commissioner Joseph Scuotto. Photo: TamaracTalk.com

The invitation identifies 170 Broward special-interest movers and shakers – lobbyists, politicians, attorneys and business owners – as the “Committee to Elect Martin David Kiar Broward County Property Appraiser.” Should they all show up and give the max, Kiar’s campaign would reap $170,000.

Three big names supporting Kiar are Broward Sheriff Scott Israel, former Florida Attorney General Bob Butterworth and lobbyist Bill Rubin, longtime friend and advisor to Gov. Rick Scott.

Also invited: VAB chair and vice chair Stacy Ritter and Barbara Sharief, who are also Martin Kiar’s colleagues on the county commission, and VAB board alternates, Commissioners Dale V.C. Holness and Mark Bogen.

Click here to see the invitation with the full list of names.

State law prohibits government employees from having conflicting employment or contractual relationships, saying they should refrain from relationships “that will create a continuing or frequently recurring conflict between his or her private interests and the performance of his or her public duties or that would impede the full and faithful discharge of his or her public duties.”

Monroe Kiar told FloridaBulldog.org he’d resign his high-paying job as VAB counsel if his son is elected next year. “I would not serve in the capacity as the attorney for the VAB if Martin is property appraiser,” he said.

But asked if Property Appraiser Parrish’s upcoming fundraiser for his son creates a more immediate conflict, or the appearance of a conflict, requiring his action now to negate, Monroe Kiar responded, “All of my legal decisions are based on the facts of the case and Florida law.”

“AN UNCOMFORTABLE SITUATION”

Tallahassee attorney Benjamin Phipps, who has long specialized in property tax appeals, said Parrish’s endorsement of Martin Kiar creates “an uncomfortable situation” for Broward taxpayers with appeals before the VAB.

“The problem is that the person being asked to rule (on legal and procedural questions) has got a political connection to one of the parties in the contest,” said Phipps. “If I were a taxpayer appearing before the Broward VAB and there was a legal issue that could tilt either toward the board or the taxpayer, I would be very uncomfortable about a decision” by Monroe Kiar. “That decision is final. It is not appealable.”

Parrish took issue with Phipp’s assessment.

“You tell Mr. Phipps that I’m surprised that any attorney would talk like that. First of all, I didn’t give up my civil rights for Mr. Phipps or anybody else,” said Parrish. “As far as legal opinions, sometimes Monroe Kiar has agreed with us and sometimes he does not agree with us.”

The political connections between Parrish and the Kiars, longtime personal friends, aren’t limited to the upcoming fundraiser.

In 2012, while serving as VAB counsel, Monroe Kiar was a member of a committee backing the re-election of Parrish’s husband, Broward Circuit Judge Geoff Cohen. The Kiars also sponsored a fundraiser at Cohen and Parrish’s home.

Later that year, Parrish and Kiar held a joint victory party after she was re-elected without opposition and he was elected to the county commission without opposition. In her Facebook announcement, Parrish referred to Martin Kiar as her “close friend.”

HIGH-PAYING JOB

Monroe Kiar, a veteran Democratic activist and former Davie mayor whose current annual pay exceeds the yearly salaries of Florida’s attorney general and the judges and justices of Florida’s courts, won a no-bid extension of his contract for up to five years last June with the help of other politicians now supporting his son for property appraiser.

VAB members Ritter and Sharief, Martin Kiar’s county commission colleagues, were part of a 4-0 vote in favor of favor of re-hiring Kiar’s dad. Monroe Kiar won a competitive process to serve as VAB counsel in 2009, while his son was a state legislator.

BrowardBeat.com reported in December that Martin Kiar announced his run for Property Appraiser at a fundraiser for Sharief’s husband, Miramar commission candidate Maxwell Barrington Chambers. Chambers won his election this month.

Broward’s VAB has long been troubled by a public perception that fairness for taxpayers takes a back seat at a venue controlled by local politicians.

That perception was validated last year when a state performance audit reported that property tax appeals at VABs across the state appear to have been rigged by local government officials more interested in safeguarding tax revenues than fairly valuing real estate.

In Broward, the audit found the VAB had compiled “tracking reports” on special magistrates who recommended large assessment reductions and used them to get rid of six magistrates who had given the highest reductions to taxpayers.

“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,” said the audit by Florida Auditor General David W. Martin.

Property tax dollars provide about 50 percent of public education funding and 30 percent of local government revenues in Florida, the audit said.

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