Homestead fraud cases have put property valued at more than $88 million back on the county’s tax roll

Firm assisting with that effort gets 30% of taxes paid as a result of investigations, Property Appraiser’s Office administrative director says

A graphic compares the work of full-time employees (FTE) in the Sarasota County Property Appraiser’s Office to those in other property appraiser offices across the state. Image courtesy Property Appraiser’s Office

From October 2015 through May of this year, the Sarasota County Property Appraiser’s Office has been able to add property with a taxable value of $88,063,000 back to the tax roll, thanks to investigations into homestead fraud cases, Brian Loughrey, the office’s administrative director, told the County Commission this week.

As a result of its contract with the Charlotte, N.C.-based firm Tax Management Associates, Loughrey said on June 20, 97,887 homestead exemption accounts were submitted to the company for its assessment. Out of those, he continued, the firm suggested 1,085 should undergo further investigation. “Our staff reviewed every one of those recommendations very thoroughly,” Loughrey pointed out. As a result, 547 were found not to be in compliance.

Under state law, he noted, a 50% penalty and 15% interest per year are charged on tax amounts that have not been paid. The total value of liens put on parcels under investigation by the Property Appraiser’s Office as a result of the Tax Management Associates’ contract is $9,170,000, Loughery said; $7.4 million has been paid. Loughrey showed the board a chart that split the latter figure into $4,670,000 in taxes, $2,330,000 in penalties and $2,170,000 in interest.

When Commissioner Nancy Detert asked how much the office is paying the North Carolina firm, Loughery explained that Tax Management Associates receives 30% of whatever payments are turned over to the Tax Collector’s Office as a result of the investigations.

A graphic presented to the County Commission on June 20 compares the value of new construction in Sarasota County over past years. Image courtesy Property Appraiser’s Office

Loughrey appeared before the County Commission on June 20 in place of Property Appraiser William Furst to present the office’s budget for the 2018 fiscal year. During his remarks, Loughrey also addressed efficiencies in operations that Furst’s staff has been able to achieve. Among those, he noted, have been implementation of a desktop review process that has limited the number of field inspections appraisers have to undertake to update property records every five years, as required by law. The appraisers no longer have to worry about bad weather hampering their efforts, Loughrey told the board.

Additionally, staff members have begun using a sketch verification process that allows them to overlay on aerial maps sketches of new structures that were submitted to county staff for permitting, he said. That has made it possible to ensure homeowners have not completed additions without county approval or notification, he pointed out.

“Those dirty dogs that used to put an addition on their house and never got building permits — you now match your sketch to the Google aerial … and catch all these rascals?” Commissioner Alan Maio asked.

“We use the aerial that the county pays for,” Loughrey responded. That has enabled staff to find “sheds, garages, barns, that sort of thing” for which people did not apply for permits, he pointed out.

Finally, Loughrey said, the homestead application process has become virtually paperless. The most recent figures show staff recorded an increase of 2,000 in such online applications year-over-year, for a total of 12,200, Loughrey added.

In comparing the workload of staff in the Sarasota County Property Appraiser’s Office with that of the employees in the state’s other property appraiser offices, Loughrey continued, data show that each full-time worker in the Sarasota County office handles 4,646 parcels each year, whereas the lowest level in the state is 1,387.

Commissioner Nancy Detert looks at a slide on June 20. Rachel Hackney photo

Furthermore, he said, budget figures indicate that the cost per parcel of each full-time worker in the Sarasota County Office is $18.93, which is the seventh lowest for such figures in the state.

As for the budget: Furst’s total proposal for 2018 totals $6,899,828, a 3.1% increase over the adopted FY2017 budget of $6,694,392, Loughrey pointed out. The Florida Department of Revenue must approve the Property Appraiser’s Office budget, he explained.

Funding from Sarasota County covers expenses such as those for information technology services and voice communications. The county portion of the budget is up 3.5% from FY17 to FY18, according to a chart he showed the board, for a total of $732,377.

Among other facets of the FY18 budget, Loughrey noted that personnel expenses are projected to rise by 0.8%, with operating expenses estimated to climb by 17.1%. The latter, he explained, are related “entirely to legal expenses.”

Loughery also discussed the proposed constitutional amendment — approved by the Legislature this year — which will allow voters in 2018 to decide whether to increase the homestead exemption by $25,000 for parcels with assessed values between $100,000 and $125,000. Based on this year’s estimated county property value, he said, if that third exemption were in effect, it would reduce the property tax levy by $5,948,677, assuming no change in the county’s FY17 millage rate of 3.1962.