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Property tax appeals hit new high as owners seek relief
November 10, 2009
Palm Beach Post
By:  JENNIFER SORENTRUE and CHRISTINE STAPLETON
A record 18,000 Palm Beach County property owners gambled $15 this year for a chance to save on their property tax bill.

For the lucky, the petitions to the Value Adjustment Board to lower their assessments could save thousands of dollars.

And at a mere 15 bucks, it's a risk many say is worth taking - especially since the odds are more in their favor than ever. A change in state law that took effect this year has made it easier for owners to challenge their property's assessed value.

Property appraisers now are required to prove the accuracy of their assessments. Before the rule change, the appraiser's office was presumed correct; property owners had to prove the value ascribed to their real estate was wrong.

"Anybody who had any question at all about going to a hearing will want to go now," said property tax appeal specialist Sheila Anderson, who represents property owners across the state.

But if county revenuers aren't worried, here's why:

Statistics indicate the majority who filed petitions by the September deadline likely won't win their appeals. Many won't even bother showing up for their hearings, Property Appraiser Gary Nikolits said.

Historically, half of the petitions that are filed are resolved by the property appraiser's office without ever being heard by a special magistrate, he said.

Of the remaining half of petitioners, half blow off their hearings. "People say, 'it is only $15,'" Nikolits said.

County taxpayers, on the other hand, end up paying a hefty price for those who don't show, Nikolits said. He estimates it costs his office about $100 to prepare for each hearing. This year, that amounts to about $1.8 million.

The $15 filing fee covers administrative costs the clerk's office incurs and the salaries of the special magistrates. None of it goes to the property appraiser's office.

Special magistrates were set to review 294 petitions on Oct. 30, for example, Nikolits said. But 125 of those property owners withdrew their petitions before the hearing. Another 114 cases were rescheduled.

Of the remaining 55 petitions, 38 of the property owners didn't show for their hearing.

Ultimately, only two property owners had their values reduced by the special magistrates.

"I don't see the rationale, during these difficult budget times, for the 97 percent of property owners who do not file petitions to be asked to pay ... for the other three percent," Nikolits wrote in an e-mail to The Palm Beach Post.

To help recoup administrative costs, county officials are asking state lawmakers to raise the petition fee to $50. They say the amount would cover the clerk's cost of processing all of the petitions.

The value adjustment board's budget was cut by about $20,000 this year, yet the number of petitions it processes grew by 40 percent, the clerk's office said.

"It ought to pay its way," said County Commissioner Karen Marcus, who chairs the value adjustment board. "Not everybody appeals, yet the rest of the taxpayers are paying for the system."

Anderson said she was outraged by the request. All taxpayers have a constitutional right to question their bills, she said.

"Do we charge people to vote?" she said. "You don't charge people to exercise their rights. ... To suggest anything that would encourage people not to file petitions goes against the very reason there is a process."

Since the preliminary tax bills were mailed out in August, Anderson said, she gets constant calls from property owners looking for tax cuts.

Many landowners, she said, simply don't understand why their tax bills went up this year when their property values fell.

"The market has come down ... but the taxes have gone up," Anderson said. "People don't get all of that."

For one, the assessments represent the property's value on Jan. 1 - not in August, when the bills are mailed.

Meanwhile, many homesteaded property owners saw their homes' assessed value increase by 0.1 percent this year, even though countywide property values fell. That's because state law requires county property appraisers to increase the assessed value of a homesteaded property if it is less than the property's market value.

Adding to the surge, Nikolits said, he's seen a spike in petitions filed by tax-fighting companies, promising to save their clients money. Some of these companies charge as much as $35 just to file the petition, Nikolits said.

Other changes in state law, pushed by the tax appeal representatives, have also made it more difficult for Nikolits' office to resolve petitions before a hearing is scheduled. Challengers are no longer required to include their estimate of their property's value on their petition. And they aren't required to tell the appraiser's office why they are challenging.

For example, a homeowner may have learned that their home has Chinese drywall in it. If the property appraiser's office had that information, it would be able to lower the home's value without a hearing, Nikolits said.

And while rule changes will have limited effect, they do tilt in favor of petitioners and away from the county tax collectors, he said. "If property appraisers begin to lose, then local governments are going to lose more and more."

 
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