A Taxing Process

It's not a particularly exhaustive process, and critics claim it is tainted by politics. After all, there is little to distinguish one applicant's qualifications from those of another. Special masters who hear assessment appeals are required to be either state-licensed brokers or state-certified appraisers with more than five years' experience. They also must be members of one of four designated professional appraising organizations. Only special masters who are also attorneys are allowed to consider requests for exemptions. Last year 7 out of the 28 special masters were assigned to hear such cases.

Although these are hardly rigorous requirements, agents who frequently appeal cases say the county maintains a general level of competency. "Dade County special masters are by and large very well qualified," observes Tom Post, one of the top local consultants who himself served as a special master in the Seventies. "Of course you always have a turnover, and there have been some problems with special masters in the past."

The county's docket of 30,000-odd appeals is divvied up among the special masters according to their area of expertise. Thus some special masters end up hearing primarily high-value commercial property appeals while others spend the bulk of their time ruling on residential properties. This is one reason Herb Parlato, deputy appraiser for Dade County, says it is so hard to evaluate a particular master's overall performance. There simply is no standard to measure whether a special master is granting excessive tax breaks or sustaining unfair assessments.

Property owners are likewise left without any concrete way of knowing whether they have received a fair hearing. In some cases they win a reduction that is only a small percentage of the total value of their property and is not nearly what they requested. Other times the appeal is approved in full.

A frequently heard beef from property owners and tax consultants is the limited time allowed to file appeals. Property tax notices are mailed out in August, and property owners have 25 days from the mailing date to file an appeal. "There's not a uniform date that people know they have to file an appeal on," grumbles consultant Tom Post. "And more importantly, they don't have enough time to file an appeal. Sometimes the hearings on the millage rates aren't even done by the time you have to file an appeal, so you don't know what your tax will be. That's wrong. That's just flat-out wrong!"

Once a taxpayer receives his notice, he has two options. If there seems to be something obviously wrong with his assessment -- his property is listed as having four bathrooms when there are only two, or as having a back-yard pool when there isn't one -- he can go directly to the Property Appraisal Department and ask for a reduction. If that fails, he can ask for a hearing. Or he can request a hearing straightaway.

Perhaps the most positive thing that can be said about the tax appeal hearings is that they pay for themselves. According to the county's figures, as of the first week in June, salaries and overtime for special masters totaled about $312,000, or about $12 per case, which is less than the $15 it costs a citizen to file an appeal. Cases continued to be heard through September and the final tax roll was certified October 18.

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