Land of Opportunity

Dade's property tax assessment appeals system features sloppy record-keeping, a lack of oversight -- and a whole lot of money for those who know how to ask for it

A spokesman for the VAB acknowledges that most special masters are reappointed. Confirming that Siegel did not receive sufficient votes from board members, he declined further comment.

"My recommendation is that you tell [taxpayers] to learn how to appeal an assessment or you tell them to call a tax professional," Siegel concludes.

Those tax professionals, also known as agents or tax consultants, are the middlemen in the assessment appeal process -- and the primary reason commercial property owners file successful appeals with such regularity. Many consultants are former employees of the Property Appraisal Department; a few have worked as special masters themselves. They know the system intimately and are treasure troves of appeal-related minutiae. Equipped with an uncanny sense for sniffing out overvalued properties, consultants also have an uncanny ability to zero in on county appraisers' errors.

Reductions obtained by the thirteen top-grossing consultants in Dade County accounted for about $16 million this past year, or about half the boodle rescued from county coffers. The consultants' combined tally of successful cases was 5464, approximately 41 percent of all winning appeals, for an average tax reduction of $2873 per parcel.

By comparison, property owners who represented themselves netted an average tax savings of only $1510. These tax ingenues accounted for 3079 cases, or 23 percent of the winning appeals, and won only $4.7 million, or about 15 percent of the reduction jackpot.

Despite their success, most consultants are reluctant to trumpet their skills. "This is a quiet business," confides Roberta Montero, president of Abatement Incorporated, a six-person firm that has managed to carve almost ten million dollars from its clients' tax bills in the seven years since its founding. According to county records, the firm won at least $673,500 in tax relief last year for Dade taxpayers, while discreetly maintaining its low profile. "Everyone in the world doesn't know about this business," Montero adds.

Word of the potential bonanza in the tax-consulting business, however, is beginning to spread. Although many tax consultants are licensed real estate brokers or appraisers, the state has no requirements for those who wish to enter the fray. Anyone can hang up a shingle, and many have. Ten years ago, there were only a handful of tax consultants in Dade. Today more than 100 "real estate consultants" are listed in the yellow pages.

Abatement Incorporated's listing is Montero's sole attempt to reach out to the public at large. Like most tax consulting firms, Abatement Incorporated relies mainly on commercial clients with large, valuable properties. Montero says she rarely advertises and generates much of her business through word-of-mouth referrals. "If you advertise, you're going to attract homeowners," she explains. "We don't want an onslaught of people asking us to lower their assessments just because their taxes are too high."

It's not that consultants don't sympathize with homeowners, but few Dade homes are worth their while. Most consultants operate on contingency fees, collecting between 35 and 50 percent of the tax savings if they win an appeal, and nothing if they don't. As a result, consultants tend to limit their residential work to homes worth at least $250,000, though as a favor some will appeal the homes owned by their commercial clients. The emphasis on profit could explain why the average tax saving granted to a consultant during appeal hearings is more than 75 percent higher than that given to a homeowner.

A discerning selection of clients can bring rich rewards. Tax consultant Dennis Eisinger represented one of the condominium buildings on Williams Island, presenting the arguments of 315 condominium owners to Special Master Rennee Rolle-Dawson on December 1. That was a felicitous day for Eisinger. In one fell swoop Rolle-Dawson approved all the appeals, granting tax reductions that totaled $132,025.07.

While it might make sense to rule on all the units in one large condo building on the same day, the ease with which consultants often earn their living, and their dependence on the judgment of a special master, has made some county employees suspicious.

"It's common knowledge in the property appraiser's office that consultants give work to masters," asserts a county employee who has represented the department in tax appeal hearings and who asked to remain anonymous.

Most of the special masters are professional real estate appraisers whose main business involves estimating property values for banks, government agencies, and private businesses. "The market's tight out there," the employee continues, laying out his theory that consultants sometimes steer appraisal jobs to special masters in return for a favorable ruling on their appeals. "[The masters] need that extra $10,000," he adds, in reference to the approximate fee to appraise a large office building.

The same staffer reports that some special masters have occasionally made golf dates with consultants while they were sitting together in a hearing room in front of a representative from the Property Appraisal Department, and that others have asked consultants to donate to philanthropic organizations like the Shriners.

Special Master Pedro Lopez admits he "may" play golf with a consultant every once in a while; other special masters acknowledge that they run into consultants at social gatherings and professional luncheons. But all deny that these encounters represent any sort of ethical violation. Lopez says he never discusses his cases outside the hearing room, and that the consultants he counts among his friends know better than to bring up the subject. "These are professional people," he declares. "They know the rules."

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