A Taxing Process

The Dade County Property Appraisal Department uses a mass-appraisal system, dividing the county into a grid of one-square-mile areas that are examined for changes in property values at least once a year. County appraisers employ a variety of techniques to verify values: They examine recent sales, as well as sales in nearby areas; they scrutinize aerial photos, looking for improvements that may have gone unreported (a new fence, a built-on addition, a swimming pool); they analyze rental and occupancy rates for commercial property; and occasionally they visit a site.

Given Dade's 650,000-plus parcels of property, however, this system is fraught with error. Its underlying premise -- that properties within the same neighborhood will be of comparable value -- doesn't always hold true. As assistant property appraiser Frank Jacobs readily admits, "There are never two identical properties. You're always making adjustments to compare this one and that one."

To compensate for the sundry factors that turn one piece of property into a diamond and another into a dump, appraisers adhere to a formula known as "the three approaches to value," which takes into account the cost of replacing the property, the current market for selling the property, and the property's income. By law, government appraisers like the eagle-eyed staffers in the Property Appraisal Department must also follow a set of criteria laid out in the Florida Statutes. These rules are supposed to ensure uniform assessments, to guarantee that the value of each piece of property for tax purposes is determined in exactly the same way.

But because county appraisers physically inspect fewer than one in ten parcels each year, imaginative property owners seeking lower taxes have a virtually limitless array of arguments to justify their requests for tax exemptions or lower assessments.

During this past year's appeal hearings before the Value Adjustment Board, for instance, one homeowner explained to Special Master Anthony Rolle that he had failed to file for a homestead exemption because he had recently moved and never received his tax notice. "Besides that I lost my job and I went under depression status," the man continued. "I couldn't eat. I was scared to go out. I am now suffering a kind of memory loss."

Homestead exemptions -- a perpetual $25,000 reduction of a property's assessed value -- are granted to all Florida homeowners who can show that a property is their primary residence. The petitioner qualified for the exemption, which was granted.

In a hearing room down the hall, Special Master John Dinda listened as the owner of a Miami River boatyard asserted that a highly publicized raid on a boat packed with Haitian refugees had contributed to the plummeting value of his property. Furthermore, the property owner said, there is a homeless encampment across the street: "Without armed guards you can't go down there after 6:00 p.m. because of all the homeless and the Haitians."

The representative from the Property Appraisal Department looked dubious and quizzed the boatyard owner about charges for unloading ships, for docking, and for storage. But in the end Dinda lowered his assessment by about $20,000, a tax savings of about $378.

The two cases illustrate what typically occurs at the two types of hearings A those for tax exemptions and those for reductions in assessed value. (Besides the well-known homestead exemption, Florida law specifies myriad other exemptions under certain circumstances: There are exemptions for religious groups, educational institutions, labor unions, historic buildings, widows, and handicapped war veterans.)

Hearings, which are informal and often last no more than ten minutes, are held in small, stuffy rooms on the sixth floor of Metro's Government Center. The special master sits at a table toward the rear of the room. Also present are a court reporter and a representative from the Property Appraisal Department. Property owners or their hired consultants, or both, wait on metal folding chairs set up in short rows in front of the table. When it's your turn on the docket, you approach the special master, state your case, and hand over whatever documentation you've brought with you.

There is an unpretentious, grade school-like atmosphere to the hearings. Nervous adults clutching briefcases fret about their assessments. The special masters, dressed in everyday office attire, seem better suited to the role of bureaucrat than to that of judge.

In fact, the selection of special masters is treated even more lackadaisically than that of your average government clerk. Each year the Value Adjustment Board (VAB), which oversees the hearings, places a newspaper ad for the special master position. Special masters who served the previous year must reapply. Frank Fernandez, manager of the VAB, and Steven Schultz, the board's legal counsel, screen the applicants. Those who make the cut are invited to interview before the board.

The board is made up of five members. Three are county commissioners, selected by their peers: Art Teele, Javier Soto, and Gwen Margolis. Two are school board officials, selected the same way: Robert Renick and Rosa Castro Feinberg.

The interviews are conducted en masse in the Metro Commission chambers and last about five minutes. Each applicant stands up, states his or her qualifications, and responds to any questions posed by board members.

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