Scam delays 100,000-plus Miami-Dade property tax appeals
By Yudislaidy Fernandez
Miami-Dade's valuation board is delayed in finishing 2009 property tax appeal hearings because more than 600 property owners were reportedly scammed by a company they paid to represent them at the hearings but never showed up.
As those cases get rescheduled and hearings are held, the Value Adjustment Board won't be able to finish 2009 tax appeals by March, as previously anticipated, and is now likely to finish by May.
The board can't start hearing 2010 tax appeals — totaling 105,569 cases — until 2009 is done, said Robert Alfaro, valuation board manager.
This was the first time the board dealt with such a scheme, Mr. Alfaro said.
A California-based company under the local name Florida Property Tax Adjusters pocketed $99 fees from more than 650 property owners in the county — collecting more than $64,350 — to represent them in appeal hearings, but didn't attend a single one.
The entity was registered in Weston but appears inactive, according to the Florida Department of State Division of Corporations Web site. Its phone has been disconnected and its Web site no longer exists.
The board first realized in December that this agent wasn't showing up to any of its assigned hearings, Mr. Alfaro said.
While it's common for property owners to pay an agent to represent them in appealing their taxes, these agents generally don't get paid until after the hearing, receiving a percentage of the money they save the owner.
Tax appeals in Miami-Dade soared annually from 2005 to 2009. The 144,000 appeals received in 2009 broke the 2008 record, a period when property values were declining.
A main reason the apparent scam could happen is that the industry isn't properly regulated, said Lazaro Solis, deputy property appraiser.
"You can go sign up 100 clients and represent them and there is nothing in the state that says you can't do that because you are not a qualified individual," he said. "We have about 100,000 properties being appealed in Miami-Dade, yet these agent representatives don't have to meet any agency standards or get licenses, and appeals are a quasi-judicial process."
Mr. Solis said Property Appraiser Pedro Garcia first noticed an ad offering appeal services for a $99 up-front fee about a year ago. Mr. Garcia was at a conference and couldn't be reached.
At the time, the appraiser's office checked, Mr. Solis said, and was told by authorities agents are allowed to charge for services in advance.
Because of the scheme, Miami-Dade Clerk of the Courts Harvey Ruvin wrote to affected property owners to re-schedule their hearings.
But the more than 600 no-shows wasted time and resources that could have been applied to another hearing, Mr. Solis said, as the property appraiser's office has to send a representative to every case.
The board also pays magistrates to hear the cases.
"It's costly because we are paying a magistrate who is sitting there without doing anything," Mr. Alfaro said. "We are spending money on postage and, when we send the notification, the manpower that is required to do that."
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