More than $551 million added to county tax rolls as a result of homestead exemption and other investigations pursued by Property Appraiser’s Office

Litigation over property value adjustments also has proven fruitful, Property Appraiser Bill Furst says

A graphic shows details about Sarasota County Property Appraiser Office initiatives. Image courtesy Sarasota County Property Appraiser

Not only has the Sarasota County Property Appraiser’s Office added more than $551 million to the tax rolls over the past three-and-a-half years through audits of homestead exemptions and other investigations, but it also has been successful in recovering hundreds of thousands of dollars in tax revenue through litigation over disputed property values.

That was part of the presentation Property Appraiser Bill Furst provided to the Sarasota County Commission this week during a discussion of his proposed budget for the 2019 fiscal year.

He has had his share of disagreements, he said, with the attorney for the county’s Value Adjustment Board. Yet, legal action, his office has taken as a result has proven fruitful, he noted. For example, his office recovered $531,755 in taxes from the Ritz-Carlton, he continued, in a case dating to 2013.

A second lawsuit — involving the Sun N Fun property on Fruitville Road — brought in a total of $438,393 in recovered taxes, he added.

In regard to the Ritz-Carlton litigation, he explained that the Value Adjustment Board heard an appeal of the just value of $30,600,000 that the Property Appraiser’s Office set for the property in 2013. The Value Adjustment Board (VAB) reduced the just value to $16,977,600. That amount is less than the value of some single-family homes in Sarasota County, Furst pointed out to the commissioners.

The lawsuit finally was settled in March, Furst said, with the total taxable value for the four years of litigation ending up at $292,360,000, compared to the total taxable value set by the VAB for the Ritz for that period, which was $250,339,675.

Thus, Furst pointed out, the taxable value recovered was $42,020,325. However, he said, his office incurred $154,059 in legal expenses.

A graphic provides details about the Ritz-Carlton value dispute. Image courtesy Sarasota County Property Appraiser

In the Sun N Fun case, Furst continued, his office set the just value of that property at $89,726,700 in 2014. The VAB granted a petition to reduce that to $49,230,000. After winning that case in October 2017, Furst noted, the taxable value recovered for the property from 2014 to 2017 was $34,642,700.

His office’s legal expenses were $153,625.

“We don’t enter lawsuits very often,” Furst said. When he and his staff have chosen that route, he added, he believes the results have been “fair and equitable to the taxpayers. “So far so good; when we enter into lawsuits, we win them.”

Then he reminded the board that in October 2014, his office began working with a firm to review all the county’s 97,887 homestead exemption accounts. Of the 1,084 recommendations the firm provided his staff for further review, Furst noted, 534 were found not in compliance with state law.

From October 2015 through May of this year, he continued, liens resulting from those investigations put property valued at $380,264,000 back on the tax rolls. Altogether, taxes, penalties and interest have added up to $8.6 million, Furst said, and Tax Collector Barbara Ford-Coates has collected about $7.5 million, or 88% of the total.

Referring to the work with that audit firm, he added, “I think it was a worthwhile investigation.”

Furst then explained that the audits and all investigations by his office between October 2014 and May of this year led to property valued at $551,084,000 being added back to the tax rolls. The total tax revenue linked to those parcels was $6,321,000, according to a chart prepared by Furst’s staff. Penalties added up to another $3,160,000, and interest was $3,011,000. The grand total from the liens, he noted, was $12,492,000.

A bar graph shows trends in new construction value in the county. Image courtesy Sarasota County Property Appraiser

Those investigations have led to lawsuits against his office, he noted. Two cases his office won ended up being appealed, he said, but his office prevailed. “I think we’re doing very well with that.”

Among other information he provided the commissioners, Furst noted that real estate brokers in the county have been saying property values are back to pre-recession levels. “But we really haven’t come back.”

In 2007, he said, the value of all Sarasota County taxable property was $62.7 billion. The preliminary value his office released for this year is $58.4 billion. “We’re really not back yet,” he stressed, “but we’re on an uphill swing.”

Many members of the public, having seen so many cranes in the area, believe new construction is back up to the pre-recession level, he continued. That also is not the case. With the value of new construction set each year as of Jan. 1, Furst explained, the figure for this year’s tax roll is $1.2 billion. However, on Jan. 1, 2007, he noted, the value of new construction was $2.2 billion.

Department details

A bar graph shows changes in overall county property values. Image courtesy Sarasota County Property Appraiser

Furst also discussed the efficiencies of his staff, as indicated by Florida Department of Revenue statistics. His 66 full-time employees deal with a total of 307,576 parcels, he said. Thus, the average is 4,660 parcels per employee on his staff. Only seven of the state’s 67 counties, he said, “are more efficient than us” in that Department of Revenue analysis.

Moreover, Furst continued, 59 of the state’s 67 counties budget more per parcel than his office does. The Sarasota County figure is $20.09. Some counties spend more than $65 per parcel.

Among other facets of his presentation, Furst reported that the county’s Information Technology Department over the past year had created and deployed a kiosk to produce faster customer service in his office. In nine months, he noted, 18,594 customers have been served, with an average service time of 11 minutes.

Furst further noted that the furnishings in the Terrace Building, where office is located, have not been updated in more than 20 years. Therefore, his office has been replacing chairs and tables, for example, floor by floor.

As for the 2019 fiscal year, Furst explained that he needs to hire one additional full-time employee, adding that “a lot” of his staff members have entered the Florida Retirement System’s DROP program, and they are using up vacation days.

The expense of personnel services is expected to rise from $5,080,155 this year to $5,457,518 in FY19.

His total budget for the current fiscal year is $6,899,828, including internal charges imposed by the county for services such as the wellness program, voice communications systems and various insurance premiums. His overall proposed budget for the 2019 fiscal year is $7,320,530.