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

Herb Parlato, the county's deputy appraiser, denies that his department has any input when it comes to scheduling and predicts Mandler's suit will be dismissed.

The mere suggestion that their decisions might be less than evenhanded leaves special masters nonplused. Special Master Stuart Perlman, who has heard Dade tax appeals for a decade, was surprised to learn that he ranked as one of last year's stingiest masters, approving only 261 cases out of 787, for a total tax impact of $182,090.92. (John Bruce, the most generous special master, approved 831 cases out of 1255, saving taxpayers $2,881,614.81.)

"That's funny," Perlman comments. "I always considered myself to be pretty fair-minded about it, and certainly there's no pressure from the VAB to rule one way or the other. No one has ever said to me, 'I want you to favor the property appraiser, or the people.' The instructions are quite clear. The whole purpose of the hearings is to address the inequities in the system."

During an annual four-hour orientation, VAB counsel Steven Schultz, along with board manager Frank Fernandez, instruct special masters about the importance of being impartial. Special masters are told not to discuss any cases outside the hearing room or in the presence of either the petitioner or the representative from the Property Appraisal Department. They are reminded not to review evidence that either they, or one of their associates, has prepared on behalf of a petitioner for a hearing. (For example, independent appraisals of a property's worth are often included as part of an argument for a lower assessment.) In addition, a special master is forbidden to represent a client before the VAB.

"If a special master feels they can't dispose of a case in an unbiased and neutral way, they're asked to recuse themselves," Schultz explains. "They're asked to avoid even the appearance of impropriety."

Despite these elaborate instructions, most special masters believe that ethical questions are left up to their personal discretion. Special Master Manuel Blanco, for instance, says he would be able to decide the appeal of a property owner for whom he had once done an appraisal, as long as the appeal concerned a different piece of property. "I'd tell the [representative from the Property Appraisal Department], 'Look, I've done business with [the petitioner] before,' but basically the decision would be up to me."

Special Master Ena Jane concurs. Jane recused herself once during the three years she has served as a master, because she remembered appraising the property that was being appealed. But she also sees no conflict in deciding the cases of former clients.

"Basically, [to prompt a recusal] it has to be a property you know," Jane explains. "Unless it's a property owned by a relative or a business associate or someone you know you couldn't make a fair decision about." Even if a special master does not see the need to recuse himself, Jane says, he should disclose to the Property Appraisal Department when a case with which he is familiar turns up on his docket.

Whether special masters are disclosing potential conflicts of interest, however, is not something that preoccupies VAB manager Fernandez. "There might be any number of reasons why masters might recuse themselves," Fernandez says, explaining why he sees no need to keep track of recusals. "It happens, but it's very seldom."

In fact, the county makes little effort to track the performance of special masters, to ensure that their decisions are impartial, or to systematically check whether a particular special master is overruling county assessments disproportionately. Although the VAB, which is made up of three county commissioners and two members of the school board, meets once a year to approve the changes made by the special masters, Fernandez says they do not review individual changes as a matter of policy. Instead, they rubber-stamp the amended tax roll and leave any challenges -- either by taxpayers or the Property Appraisal Department -- to be sorted out by a civil court judge. In other words, the system is supposed to be self-policing.

This year the property appraiser has filed suit on 108 cases. Herb Parlato, Dade's deputy appraiser, explains that the county appeals special masters' reductions if they appear unwarranted, and if the impact on the tax rolls outweighs the cost of a court case. Though every year county computer specialists produce a report (such as the one used in researching this story) which lists each reduction in assessed value according to the special master who made the change, the property appraiser doesn't systematically review the decisions of each special master.

"A couple of years ago, we looked at it quickly, but it was very difficult to see if any trend was taking place," Parlato admits. In the past ten years, he says, the property appraiser has found cause to question the decision making of only one special master.

"I can't remember who it was," he says. "We just brought it to the VAB's attention. We said, look, there are a lot of properties being reduced that we don't agree with."

According to Parlato, the property appraiser has no authority to challenge special masters who appear either incompetent or biased. "We can bring things up to the attorney for the VAB, but we are not part of the hiring or dismissing process," he notes.

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