HOMEOWNERS URGED TO CHECK HOUSING RECORDS

Brevard County embarks on search for property owners who claim improper exemptions


Even if accidental, penalties possible

By Wayne T. Price


FLORIDA TODAY

In Ohio, it’s the “Homestead Exemption and Property Tax Rollback.”

New York’s is the “School Tax Relief Exemption,” or “STAR” program. Wisconsin has the “Lottery and Gaming Credit Program.”

All are similar to Florida’s Homestead Exemption, which gives homeowners property tax breaks if Florida is their primary residence.

But bona fide Brevard residents — either unknowingly or on purpose — who claim exemptions or tax credits from states where they own another home, in addition to their house in Florida, can find themselves owing several thousands of dollars in back taxes, penalties and interest.

The Brevard County Appraisers Office now is advising people to thoroughly review all properties they own for residency- based exemptions outside Florida and remove any that no longer apply.

The warning comes as the county soon will be more aggressive in identifying violating homeowners. Last Thursday, the county began advertising for proposals from companies that can pore through housing data to locate suspected cases of property owners claiming more than one residency-based exemption. They’ll provide their findings to the appraiser’s office and see if further action is needed.

“Identification of violations is a reactionary process for our office and, unfortunately, not all exemptions are easily identified by property owners,” said Dana Blickley, who has been Brevard’s Property Appraiser since 2013. “It’s not going to be in the future.”

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Exemptions specialists Dedra Haynes-Waller, left, and Denise Hughes, center, check records with Dana Blickley, Brevard’s property appraiser, at her Titusville office. TIM SHORTT/FLORIDA TODAY

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Translation: Check your property records. Even if a mix-up is an honest error on the part of the property owner, state law gives appraisers no leeway on going after back taxes and collecting penalties and interest.

“Currently, when these cases are identified, Florida’s property appraisers have no discretion to do anything other than remove the Florida homestead exemption and lien the property for back taxes,” Blickley said.

Since becoming property appraiser, Blickley’s office has investigated scores of potential homestead fraud in Brevard. The result has been $253,000 in liens filed for back taxes.

But the office started running across a few cases — mostly by chance — that weren’t necessarily fraud but rather something closer to lack of awareness, Blickley said. (The office might start looking into a property’s status when a piece of mail it sent out gets returned. Further investigation routinely reveals property owners having a residence in another state where they could be receiving tax breaks that amount to only $50 to $100 in annual savings.) Blickley noted one recent case of a Connecticut man living in Cocoa Beach who also owned a property in Connecticut. In Connecticut, he was receiving an annual veterans discount of $78. The owner, whose name she wouldn’t disclose, applied for and received his Connecticut tax break about 35 years ago. In 2004, he became a Florida resident — registering his vehicles here and claiming Florida his primary residence. Now, he and his wife are on the hook for more than $25,000 in back taxes and penalties and interest to Brevard because of that $78 annual benefit. And, he has lost his homestead exemption here.

“The penalties are steep,” Blickley said, “and there is no administrative recourse under state law. I have no latitude on whether, or how, to impose financial penalties and remove the homestead designation.”

Blickley said it’s those type of Florida residents who shouldn’t lose their homestead exemptions. If they remove the tax discount they received in another state and repay the subsequent tax difference in that state, that should solve the problem. She wants state legislators to grant her and other property appraisers “the ability to identify and rectify similar situations.”

In light of what’s to come with data mining, Mitchell Scott Goldman, a Cocoa-based real estate lawyer, said homeowners who have residences in other states should immediately check their housing situations.

If they’re getting exemptions in other states and claiming Brevard as their primary residences, they need to get the exemptions from the other states removed.

“It is a problem,” Goldman said.

“It makes a big difference if you have a homestead exemption, and it impacts all of us. If you’re receiving one you’re not entitled to, it means we all have to pay more in taxes.”

Contact Price at 321-242-3658 or .





Dana Blickley, Brevard County’s property appraiser, said she has no leeway in assessing penalties. TIM SHORTT/ FLORIDA TODAY