As 150,000 taxpayers wait, so does tax appeals relief
By Michael Lewis
Nowhere does a tight Miami-Dade County budget bind more than in tax appeals as about 150,000 taxpayers wait for special magistrates to hear their cases.
Each of those taxpayers has several hundred to several hundred thousand dollars at stake.
Some have been awaiting a hearing since September 2008 — and the 2008 hearings may not finish until well into 2010.
At that pace, a large percentage of 2009 property tax appeals will still be waiting in 2011.
And in many — maybe most — instances, the taxpayers have already paid that money to Miami-Dade County and are awaiting refunds, while the county holds the money earning interest it will keep and not pass back to taxpayers.
Were the shoe on the other foot and it was government awaiting the money, the county would certainly find a way today to get those hearings finished and money into the coffers.
But those waiting are merely taxpayers and the county already has the money. The longer government foot-drags, the longer it has a big interest-free sum available.
Meanwhile, a corps of special magistrates under the county's Value Adjustment Board has been soldiering on, hearing 50 to 60 appeals daily in each of the eight hearing rooms now available. At that pace, with no glitches, about 100,000 appeals can be heard yearly at best.
But last year set a record with 102,000 appeals, many of which linger on, while this year 141,000 or so appeals were filed on time, with more filed late.
And, get this: to decide whether the late appeals qualify to even be heard, the few hearing rooms available get handed over to 11 attorney special magistrates to rule. And while they're hearing those requests to file late, the actual appeals on 2009 taxes won't begin because there's nowhere to hear them.
Note the dictum of 19th century British Prime Minister William E. Gladstone: "Justice delayed is justice denied."
Those words certainly apply: taxpayers who may be due tax refunds won't know for up to 18 months if or when they can collect.
Concerned about the snowballing roster of pending hearings and refunds is Clerk of Courts Harvey Ruvin. This year he increased special magistrates who hear appeals 24%, from 33 to 41. But appeals are increasing more than 42%, which means even longer delays will ensue despite additional help.
Last week, Mr. Ruvin met with County Manager George Burgess to ask for added hearing rooms and troops to speed the process.
No doubt that help is needed.
It's not like hearings can be hastened individually — each averages just 8 minutes, minimal time for a taxpayer to show a magistrate comparable sale prices and values of other properties and neighborhood problems in seeking a reduction in the property appraiser's evaluation.
It's not a slow process that's to blame, then, but the huge number of appeals as property values and sale prices slipped in a recession.
And expect a still larger number of appeals next year, because assessments will be based on values as of this coming Jan. 1, and values have been falling further in 2009, not rising.
Not every taxpayer, of course, is necessarily right. But each has a right to be heard after paying the Value Adjustment Board's $15 fee. With the jam-up today, however, the only other option is to spend thousands of dollars to appeal in court — and most taxpayers stand to save far less than that if they win.
The solution to taxpayers' pain is simple: add magistrates and hearing rooms. Mr. Ruvin even talks of using vacant downtown office space, a reasonable way to break the logjam.
Taxpayers are awaiting their money and the answer is at hand. This should be a gimme for government: help them get justice.
The excuse for not helping, of course, is to moan that budget cuts tie the county's hands.
But considering the sums at stake, anything other than action right now to clear the appeals logjam is a clear slap in the faces of 150,000 taxpayers who have already paid the county money they may not owe.
Justice delayed remains justice denied.