Sunday, August 5, 2012

Empty County Coffers, Fear Of Job/Program Cuts By Gov't Interest Groups Drive Push To Boost Law Enforcement Targeting Fraudulent Homestead Claims

In Miami, Florida, The Miami Herald reports:

  • For years — decades, really — Miami-Dade homeowners have been ducking property taxes by illegally claiming homestead exemptions, usually with impunity. [...] But these days, gambling on getting caught is a fool’s game.

    Homestead-exemption deceit has erupted into a red-hot issue in Miami-Dade and a crackdown is under way with all indications that it will only get tougher for tax cheats to elude detection.

    The price of getting caught: Up to 10 years of unpaid back taxes, plus a 50 percent penalty and 15 percent annual interest. The biggest tab this year: $403,329.70 on [one] property.

    Since January, six detectives from the Economic Crimes Bureau of the Miami-Dade Police Department have been working to bolster the muscle of 15 investigators at the Property Appraiser’s Office in nailing violators. That is up from two police detectives deployed in 2011 to tackle a backlog of some 3,500 complaints (now about 2,166) which typically come from tips from neighbors, estranged spouses and others.

    This May, Property Appraiser Pedro J. Garcia unveiled a new contract for software and services to flag suspicious claims among the 440,000 homestead properties.
    For July alone, the property appraiser, armed with smarter tools, filed $11 million in homestead liens. That compares with $8 million filed for all of 2011.

    Fueling the intensified scrutiny: money, of course.
    Starved for revenue, interest groups at the county, the school district and cities are clamoring for tougher enforcement of homestead- exemption rules in hope of bringing in revenue to help save public jobs and programs threatened by the budget ax.

    At the same time, the new use of data-mining tools to cross-check property records against an array of data from deaths to marriages to voter registrations to auto tags to water bills holds the promise of weeding out suspect exemptions in bulk, generating more and better leads than the hotlines and anonymous tips that have spawned many cases in the past.
  • Broward County Property Appraiser Lori Parrish, who has long advocated getting tough on homestead cheats, recently reeled in a [] whale for double homestead. In June, Michael and Susan Hooley were hit with a $325,459.16 in back assessments on their waterfront home at 1352 Seminole Dr. in Fort Lauderdale.

    The tax tab, covering 2007 through 2010, came after Ron Cacciatore, director of investigations for the property appraiser’s office, confirmed that Michael had purchased a second home in the Florida Keys and filed for homestead on it.

    Records show Michael was registered to vote in Monroe County. Still, married couples are only allowed a single homestead between them.(1)
For more, see Property-tax cheats facing crackdown (Illegal claims are costing Miami-Dade millions of dollars. The county is putting the squeeze on scammers).
(1) In Florida (and contrary to popular belief, particularly among uninformed government bureaucrats charged with the duty of setting tax valuations on homes and collecting real estate taxes thereon), state law and prior opinions issued by the state Attorney General appear to make pretty clear that, provided they otherwise qualify, there is nothing necessarily illegal or otherwise improper about a husband and a wife to each claim a homestead exemption on separate residences in certain circumstances ('double homesteads') (while formal opinions issued by the Florida Attorney General are not binding on any court, the Florida case law cited therein is certainly binding). See:
  • Florida Administrative Code Rule 12D-7.007(7):

    "A married woman and her husband may establish separate permanent residences without showing “impelling reasons” or “just ground” for doing so. If it is determined by the property appraiser that separate permanent residences and separate “family units” have been established by the husband and wife, and they are otherwise qualified, each may be granted homestead exemption from ad valorem taxation under Article VII, Section 6, 1968 State Constitution. The fact that both residences may be owned by both husband and wife as tenants by the entireties will not defeat the grant of homestead ad valorem tax exemption to the permanent residence of each."

    Florida Attorney General Opinion 75 Op. Att'y Gen. 146 (1975), Husband And Wife Maintaining Separate Residences May Both Qualify For Homestead Exemption;

    Florida Attorney General Opinion 05 Op. Att'y Gen. 60 (2005), Homestead Exemption -- separate residences and homestead exemption. Art. VII, s. 6, Fla. Const.

    Wells v. Haldeos, Case No. 2D09-4250 (Fla. App. 2d DCA 2010).

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