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

But as in any industry, there are always a few who seek to bend the rules to their advantage. Special Master Alvin Siegel says he was approached by a county employee A whom he suspects may have been working for a consultant A who offered a bribe in exchange for lowering an assessment. Siegel describes the bribe as being "four figures" but would not specify what year the offer was made or who made it.

He reported the overture immediately to the Value Adjustment Board, Siegel says. "They gave me a harder time than [they gave] to the person who offered it to me," he grumbles. "I decided that if it ever happened again, I'd just chew the person out and forget about it."

Steven Schultz, counsel for the board, says he knows nothing about the incident. Bill Oliver, the director of intergovernmental services for the clerk's office and supervisor of the VAB, says he too was unaware of Siegel's predicament. "If that had happened to me, I would have reported it to the state attorney, that's where that kind of report should go, not to the VAB," he comments.

Even Siegel underscores that bribery attempts occur infrequently. "These things happen," he observes. "I don't want to make a big point of it. I'm just saying they happen."

Jack Schlossberg, a tax consultant who worked in the Property Appraisal Department until last year, says he thinks rumors of graft spring more from low morale in the appraiser's office than from actual knowledge of corruption.

"When you go [to the hearings] every day, an us-against-them mentality develops," Schlossberg explains. "You wonder why you're wrong so often."

During the early Nineties, when the Resolution Trust Corporation was dumping property it had acquired amid the savings and loan debacle, Schlossberg recalls, he was profoundly frustrated at hearings when he tried to defend assessments made by the Property Appraisal Department. "We'd go, and the assessments would be chopped," he remembers. Although rumor-mongering about corruption and incompetency was rampant at the time, he says, he believes the reason assessments were so frequently overruled was that the Property Appraisal Department was "in denial" about the effect the RTC's actions were having on Dade real estate values.

Like Schlossberg, Al Blake had the opportunity to view the assessment appeal system from both sides. The chief Dade County appraiser from 1969 to 1979, Blake now heads Tax Adjustment Experts, the consulting firm that obtained the largest amount in tax reductions in the county last year. He, too, repudiates the suggestion that a special master would accept a payoff. "I don't think anyone with an ounce of sense would take a chance like that," Blake declares.

As a county employee turned consultant, Blake is keenly aware of ethical questions. According to Dade County ordinance 2-11.1, "no person . . . shall, for a period of two years after his county service or employment has ceased, act as agent or attorney for anyone other than Dade County in connection with judicial or other proceedings . . . or other particular matter . . . in which he participated personally and substantively . . . while so employed in County service."

Blake and Schlossberg checked with the county attorney before becoming private consultants. Blake went into consulting the year after he left the Property Appraisal Department, while Schlossberg waited a few months. Both say that their years with the department don't add up to any special clout during VAB hearings.

Officials at the Property Appraisal Department and the VAB agree. The general consensus is that the appeal process is tainted neither by influence-peddling nor payoffs.

Frank Fernandez, manager of the appeals board, points out that the position of special master is widely seen as a prestigious one, and a professional would be foolish to risk his or her reputation for a few thousand dollars. Special masters are also well paid, earning $75 per hour -- up to $600 per day -- reducing the temptation to snag gratuities. Furthermore, the identity of a special master is not released until the day of a hearing, so theoretically a consultant does not know who will be deliberating his appeals.

While county employees speculate about the ethics employed by tax consultants, consultants level allegations against county employees. Chief among the charges is the accusation that the Property Appraisal Department unfairly collaborates with the VAB to influence the outcome of appeal hearings.

Jeffrey Mandler, a real estate attorney who is also one of the top five consultants in Dade County in terms of dollars won in tax appeals, filed a civil suit against the property appraiser and the Value Adjustment Board, alleging that the Property Appraisal Department has illegally been given responsibility for scheduling hearings. According to Mandler, Florida law stipulates that the clerk of the court should set the schedule.

"[The property appraiser's] involvement in the scheduling creates the appearance of impropriety," Mandler asserts. "That alone should be reason enough to separate the functions."

The suit, which is pending, alleges that the Property Appraisal Department ensures that certain properties will be heard by particular special masters (who are believed to be more favorable to the department's point of view) and that the department sometimes stacks the docket in order "to prevent taxpayers from fully presenting data essential to their appeal and severely limiting the time available for a meaningful presentation to the special master."

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