Deadlines for 2013 VAB Petitions


Pursuant to Florida Statute 194.011(3)(d), a petition to a county value adjustment board to challenge the assessment of the value of the taxpayer’s property must be filed no later than 25 days after the Property Appraiser mails out the Notices of Proposed Property Taxes (otherwise known as the TRiM or Truth in Millage Notices).  The 2013 filing deadlines for select Florida counties are set forth below:

  • Brevard County:  September 4, 2013
  • Broward County:  September 18, 2013
  • Charlotte County:  September 13, 2013
  • Citrus County:  September 6, 2013
  • Collier County:  September 11, 2013
  • Dixie County:  September 10, 2013
  • Hillsborough County:  September 10, 2013
  • Lake County:  September 16, 2013
  • Lee County:  September 16, 2013
  • Manatee County:  September 13, 2013
  • Miami-Dade County:  September 17, 2013
  • Orange County:  September 18, 2013
  • Osceola County:  September 10, 2013
  • Palm Beach County:  September 16, 2013
  • Pasco County:  September 9, 2013
  • Pinellas County:  September 13, 2013
  • Seminole County:  September 13, 2013
  • Union County:  September 24, 2013
  • Volusia County:  September 10, 2012

Property Tax Appeals: Should You File a VAB Petition or Go Straight to Court?


Property owners who would like to appeal their property tax assessments are faced with two choices in Florida – they can file a petition to the county value adjustment board or they can file a lawsuit in circuit court.  Some attorneys contend that filing a VAB petition is a waste of time as the deck is stacked against the petitioner in those proceedings.  I disagree, and think that there are pros and cons to both venues.  This post will summarize the benefits of filing a VAB petition versus the benefits of going straight to circuit court.

Benefits of Filng a VAB Petition

1.  Limited Discovery Available to Property Appraiser.  In a circuit court action, both parties have the right to obtain documents from the other side, and to question the opposing parties under oath through written Interrogatories or in a deposition before a court reporter.  In a VAB proceeding, however, the Property Appraiser is at a distinct disadvantage in that, while the Property Appraiser’s documents are public records that must be made available upon request, the property owner need not disclose any documents other than the documents they intend to use as evidence.  While the Property Appraisers technically have statutory authority to obtain a subpoena for the production of taxpayer records, this mechanism is rarely used, except for very large taxpayers.  On the other hand, in a lawsuit, both parties have the ability to obtain documents from each other, including documents that the property owner may not want to produce.

2.  Value Disputes Heard by Appraisers.  If your dispute is solely a dispute over appraisal methodology and does not involve any complex legal issues, the VAB can be a good choice of venue, as value disputes in larger counties are heard by licensed appraisers, as opposed to judges, who may have very little knowledge of appraisal theories and concepts.

3.  Attorneys Not Required.  Normally, corporations, LLC and other such entities must be represented by an attorney.  However, in VAB proceedings, taxpayers are allowed to be represented by an unlicensed agent if they desire.  Please note, however, that testimony at a VAB hearing is recorded and may be used against you in a later court case.  Thus, if you think there is any chance that you might want to take the case to court, it would be advisable to be represented by counsel at your VAB hearing.

4.  Lower Costs.  The fee for filing a VAB petition is much lower than the cost of filing a circuit court action.  Also, for those who desire legal counsel, most attorneys will handle VAB petitions on a flat fee or contingent fee basis.

Benefits of Filing a Circuit Court Action

1.  Power to Subpoena Witnesses.  One of the most important benefits of a circuit court action is that, in a court proceeding, your attorney can subpoena witnesses to testify on your behalf and can depose adverse witnesses prior to trial.  Thus, testimony and evidence that may be unobtainable in a VAB proceeding can sometimes by compelled in a court proceeding.

2.  More Preparation Time.  In a VAB proceeding, the Clerk is only required to give you 25 days’ notice of the hearing and, in many smaller counties, the hearings are held very soon after the deadline for VAB petitions has expired.  Thus, if you need more than a few weeks to prepare your case, VAB is probably not the best venue for you.

3.  Cases Heard by Judge.  If your case involves a complex legal or evidentiary issue, you may be better off taking your case to circuit court, where it will be decided by a judge.  In contrast, value disputes before VABs are heard by either an appraiser or, in smaller counties, by the value adjustment board itself, which may not include anyone with a legal background.

4.  Flexibility in Scheduling.  One of the biggest disadvantages of the VAB process is the lack of flexibility in the scheduling of hearings.  In small counties, the VAB may only have two meeting dates available for your hearing.  In larger counties that hold hearings in front of special magistrates, the Clerk generally will not consult with the petitioner before scheduling the hearing and, once a hearing is scheduled, it can only be re-scheduled once, unless the petitioner shows good cause.  In court cases, on the other hand, the parties’ attorneys coordinate the scheduling of hearings around the parties’ schedules and hearings may be rescheduled even without good cause.

5.  Time to Present Case.  Finally, if you have multiple witnesses and boxes of exhibits to present, a VAB hearing may not be a good venue, as only a limited amount of time is allocated to each petitioner.

Conclusion

As a general rule, cases involving multiple witnesses and complex legal issues should probably be filed in circuit court.  However, even in those cases, there may be a benefit to filing a VAB petition if you would prefer to have your case heard by a licensed appraiser or if you are concerned about being forced to turn over confidential business documents in discovery.  For simpler cases, filing a VAB petition can be an inexpensive way to challenge a property tax assessment without waiving your right to file a circuit court action if you are unsuccessful before the VAB.

New in 2011: Payment of Taxes During Pending VAB Appeal


Taxpayers who file Value Adjustment Board petitions in 2011 must now make sure that they pay their taxes before they become delinquent.  The newly-enacted Fla. Stat. 194.014, which took effect on July 1, 2011, requires taxpayers who file VAB petitions to pay all non ad valorem taxes and at least 75% of their ad valorem taxes before they become delinquent.  Likewise, taxpayers who challenge the denial of an exemption or classification or a determination that their improvements were substantially complete must pay all non ad valorem taxes and the amount of ad valorem taxes that they admit in good faith to be owing.  In Florida, property taxes become delinquent if not paid by April 1st of the next year.  Thus, if a taxpayer fails to pay their 2011 property taxes by April 1, 2012, the VAB is required to automatically deny their petition on that property.

What is not clear from the new statute is whether a taxpayer’s failure to pay its taxes before they become delinquent will also result in the dismissal of cases pending before the VAB from prior years.  Fla. Stat. 194.171(5), which applies to property tax cases in circuit court, requires the court to dismiss all pending cases if the taxes on the property in question become delinquent in any future tax year.  In some larger Florida counties, VAB cases are sometimes not resolved until several years after they are filed.  Thus, depending on how the statute is interpreted by the VABs, taxpayers whose taxes become delinquent in those counties could risk having all of their prior years’ pending VAB cases denied.

There is one silver lining for taxpayers, though.  The new statute also provides that, if a petitioner is entitled to a refund due to the granting of their VAB petition, the amount of taxes overpaid will accrue interest at the rate of 12% per year from the date the taxes would have become delinquent.

DOR Bulletins and VAB Training Materials Deemed Not Binding on VABs


A Florida Administrative Law Judge issued a Summary Final Order in Turner v. Dep’t of Revenue, finding that the Florida Department of Revenue’s advisory bulletins and Value Adjustment Board training materials are not binding on VABs or Special Magistrates, and that Rule 12D-9.020 contravenes Florida law to the extent that it provides that the disclosure of evidence by a VAB petitioner is optional.

Earlier this year, several county Property Appraisers filed a legal challenge to the Florida Department of Revenue’s 2010 Value Adjustment Board training materials and Property Tax Oversight Bulletin 11-01, contending that the materials were improperly-promulgated administrative rules that were contrary to the requirements of the Florida Constitution and statutes.  The Property Appraisers’ primary areas of concern were the DOR’s statements that the Higgs v. Good case did not apply to VABs, its statement that the petitioner has the option of initiating an evidence exchange, and its indication that a “costs of sale” adjustment under Fla. Stat. 193.011(8) should be made to values calculated by the cost and income approach, as well as the sales comparison approach.

On June 22, 2011, the Judge ruled that the bulletins and training materials do not constitute invalid, unpromulgated rules because the “value adjustment boards and their magistrates are not required to apply – and therefore possess the discretion to deviate from – the legal principles enunciated within the materials when conducting VAB hearings.”  In support of their contention that the materials should be treated as administrative rules and thus be subject to the same promulgation procedures, the Property Appraisers had submitted evidence that certain VABs and Special Magistrates had perceived the bulletins and training materials as being mandatory.  However, the Judge found that, regardless of the perception of those individuals, the DOR has no authority to enforce its bulletins or the statements in the training materials and that they were merely non-binding recommendations that the VABS and Special Magistrates were not required to adhere to.

The Judge also ruled that the DOR’s Rule 12D-9.020 was contrary to Fla. Stat. 194.011, Fla. Stat, which requires the VAB petitioners to disclose their evidence at least 15 days before the VAB hearing.  However, the effect of this part of the ruling appears to be nominal, since the Judge also acknowledged that the only penalty for the petitioner’s failure to disclose its evidence is that the Property Appraiser is not required to disclose its evidence to the petitioner.  Thus, the effect on the requirements for exchange of evidence between the parties is essentially nil.  Basically, if the Property Appraiser requests documentation, that documentation must be provided 15 days before the hearing or it may not be admitted into evidence.  But as to evidence not requested by the Property Appraiser, the Petitioner only needs to disclose that evidence if they would like to see the Property Appraiser’s evidence before the hearing.

Understanding the First & Eighth Criteria (or Must the Property Appraiser Always Deduct 15%)?


Florida property is required to be assessed at 100% of just value, which has been deemed equivalent to fair market value.  So why do the Property Appraisers sometimes deduct 15% for the “first and eighth”?  And does the Department of Revenue’s new bulletin require 15% to be deducted from the values of all property?  This post will briefly explain the first and eighth criteria of section 193.011, Fla. Stat., when those factors apply, what “costs of sale” may be deducted, and why a 15% deduction is commonly used.

What are the “first and eighth factors”?

The phrase “the first and eighth” refers to subsections (1) and (8) of Fla. Stat. 193.011.  Fla. Stat. 193.011 sets forth the eight factors that must be properly considered by the Property Appraiser in assessing property for tax purposes.  Subsection (1) requires the Property Appraiser to consider “the present cash value of the property, which is the amount a willing purchaser would pay a willing seller, exclusive of reasonable fees and costs of purchase, in cash or the immediate equivalent thereof in a transaction at arm’s length.”  The relevant portion of subsection (8) requires the Property Appraiser to consider “the net proceeds of the sale of the property, as received by the seller, after deduction of all of the usual and reasonable fees and costs of the sale, including the costs and expenses of financing, and allowance for unconventional or atypical terms of financing arrangements.”  Although these subsections contemplate consideration of a variety of information, the phrase “first and eighth” generally refers to the requirement that the Property Appraiser consider the costs of purchase and the costs of sale.”  In Turner v. Tokai Financial Services, the court explained that while subsection (1) contemplates the transaction from the buyer’s perspective and excludes fees and costs incurred by the buyer in addition to the purchase price, subsection (8) excludes the reasonable fees and costs that the seller would pay out of the proceeds received from the buyer.

Do the first and eighth criteria apply to both real and personal property?

Although some of the factors of section 193.011 are undoubtedly more relevant to appraisals of real property, the Tokai court held that, despite some legislative history to the contrary, because Fla. Stat. 193.011  is not expressly limited to real property, it should be interpreted as applying to both real and personal property.

What “costs of sale” should be deducted?

For real property, the Supreme Court of Florida has construed the phrase “reasonable fees and costs of sale” to include only those fees and costs typically associated with the closing of a sale of real property, such as reasonable attorney’s fees, broker’s commissions, appraisal fees, documentary stamp costs, survey costs and title insurance costs.  Determinining the costs of sale of tangible personal property can be a bit more challenging.  In Tokai, the court adopted the taxpayer’s market approach value for its used equipment, but rejected the taxpayer’s request for a 20% cost of sale deduction for sales commissions, advertising, warranties, delivery, installation and product demonstration, finding that such expenses were internal expenses, rather than external “costs of sale.”  For tangible property assessed by the cost approach, the Supreme Court later held in the Walmart case that sales tax should not be deducted as a cost of sale, because it is a generally accepted appraisal practice to include acquisition costs such as sales tax, freight and installation in the original cost when performing a cost approach valuation.

Does the “costs of sale” adjustment apply to values determined by the cost approach and income approach?

This, of course, is the hot question of the day.  Years ago, the court held in Bystrom v. Equitable Life Assur. Society that a costs of sale adjustment to a value arrived at by the income approach was improper because subsection (8) could only be applied if there had been an actual sale of the property.  Fast forward to January 2011, when the Florida Department of Revenue issued PTO Bulletin 11-01 , advising all county value adjustment boards that they may make cost of sale adjustments to values determined by any of the three traditional approaches (cost, income, or sales comparison).  This came on the heels of the DOR issuing VAB training materials that indicated that the eighth factor should result in a value less than fair market value. 

Many Property Appraisers take issue with the DOR’s interpretation and contend that it contravenes established Florida law.  Hillsborough County Property Appraiser Rob Turner has filed a challenge to the DOR’s VAB training materials, asking that they be deemed invalid.  The Clay County Property Appraiser and the Florida Association of Property Appraisers have joined in that action.  A separate rule challenge was also recently filed by the Property Appraisers of Alachua, Monroe and Okaloosa counties.   Also, the DOR’s bulletin, even if accepted and followed by the Property Appraisers, is carefully phrased to only require the VABs to make an eighth criterion adjustment “when justified by sufficiently relevant and credible evidence.”  Thus, absent a directive from the courts, it is doubtful that taxpayers will suddenly see lower assessments as a result of this bulletin, although it may provide them with an additional argument to be raised in VAB hearings.

Is the “cost of sale” adjustment always 15%?

Under the law, the Property Appraisers are only required to make such adjustments as are justified by the facts, and those adjustments may be higher or lower than 15%.  In the past, some county property appraisers were called out by the courts for unfairly assessing property at a level of assessment that was less than 100% of just value.  Thus, in reviewing each county’s tax roll, the DOR conducts sales ratio studies to ensure that the county property appraisers are sincerely attempting to reflect the full fair market value of the property in their jurisdiction.  In conducting those studies, the DOR generally assumes a 15% adjustment for costs of sale and uses those adjusted values to evaluate the fairness of the county’s tax roll.  Also, every year the Property Appraisers must submit Form DR-493 to the DOR to notify the DOR of the “costs of sale” adjustments made to each type of property in their county, and Rule 12D-8.002(4) requires them to submit documents justifying any adjustments in excess of 15%.

The confusion tends to arise because the certifications made by the Property Appraiser relate to the adjustments made in their mass appraisal process.  Thus, while a Property Appraiser may certify that they made a 15% adjustment during the mass appraisal process, if a taxpayer challenges their assessment, the Property Appraiser may prepare a fee appraisal using all three approaches to value, and may or may not make similar adjustments in each approach.  However, while the Property Appraisers may take issue with the DOR’s bulletin, the bulletin seems to suggest that if a Property Appraiser has certified that they used a 15% adjustment on Form DR-493, the VAB would be justified in making a 15% adjustment to any values that do not affirmatively appear to include such a deduction.  Until the courts weigh in, this will likely continue to be a hotly contested issue before the VABs and the courts.

FAQs About the 10% Cap on Commercial Property Assessments


In 2008, Florida voters amended the Constitution to give non-homestead property owners some protection against dramatic increases in their annual property tax assessments.  As amended, the Florida Constitution now prohibits the assessment of certain non-homestead property from increasing by more than 10% per year.  Ironically, this amendment passed just as assessments of commercial property began to decrease, so few property owners have seen the benefits of this cap, but that may begin to change in 2011.  Thus, this post will address common questions about the 10% cap such as who qualfies, how the cap can be lost, and what to do if your value increases by more than 10%.

What property is protected by the 10% cap?

The 10% cap applies to most types of commercial property, including nonhomestead residential property (i.e. apartments and other rental property) and nonresidential property (i.e. commercial property and vacant land).  Property that is not protected by the 10% cap includes agricultural property, conservation land, and certain other property that is already accorded favorable tax treatment.  Of course, it also does not apply to homestead property, as homestead property is protected by the 3% cap of the Save Our Homes Amendment.  The requirements for residential property are set forth in Fla. Stat. 193.1554, and the requirements for other commercial property are set forth in Fla. Stat. 193.1555.

With values decreasing, does anyone really benefit from the 10% cap?

Actually yes.  In my experience, the taxpayers who really benefit from the 10% cap are those who successfully obtain a reduction of their assessment by the Value Adjustment Board process.  In the past, a taxpayer could obtain a reduction in one tax year, but have to fight the same battle over and over in future years.  Now, any reduction obtained during the VAB process is somewhat protected for future tax years as well.

What events will trigger the loss of the 10% cap?

The protection of the 10% cap is lost when there is a change of ownership or control.  This includes the transfer of the property by sale, foreclosure, or other means (other than tranfers to correct an error, transfers between spouses, and transfers between legal and equitable title).  If the property is owned by a corporation, LLC, partnership or other such entity, the cap will also be lost upon a transfer of more than 50% of the ownership in that entity.  Thus, a stock transfer may also trigger loss of the cap and re-assessment of the property at fair market value.  However, in 2010, the legislature amended the statute to create an exception for publicly-traded companies if the transfer of the shares occurs through the buying and selling of shares on a public exchange.

For nonresidential property, the cap can also be lost by adding an improvment that increases the value of the property by at least 25 percent.  Thus, while more routine changes, additions and improvements may only slightly affect the assessment, a substantial improvement that increases the overall value by 25% or more will result in the reassessment of the entire property at fair market value.

How does the Property Appraiser know if there has been a change of ownership or control?

Normally, the Property Appraiser learns that a property has been transferred when a deed is recorded in the public records.  However, the public records will generally not disclose if a property is owned by the same entity, but the entity itself has undergone a change of control.  Thus, Fla. Stat. 193.1556 requires any person or entity who owns property that is protected by the 10% cap to notify the Property Appraiser of any change of ownership or control on a form provided by the Department of Revenue.   If a property owner fails to notify the Property Appraiser and the Property Appraiser later discovers that the property was erroneously continuing to receive the 10% cap, the Property Appraiser can record a tax lien for the back taxes, a 50% penalty and 15% interest, which is the same penalty applied in cases of homestead fraud.

I met the requirements, so why did my assessment increase more than 10% this year?

Assuming that you met all of the requirements for the 10% cap, it could very well be that the Property Appraiser made a mistake.  It seems that some of the Property Appraisers’ computer systems have had difficulty processing the 10% cap.  Quite a few taxpayers contacted me in 2010 with concerns about the fact that their assessments erroneously increased more than the 10% cap and almost all of those issues were due to simple computer or data entry errors.  Thus, I would recommend contacting the Property Appraiser’s office, as it may be a simple issue to correct.  If that does not work, then you may be able to seek relief through the VAB process.

The Actual Use Doctrine in Florida: Tax Exemptions Determined as of January 1st


When it comes to property taxes in Florida, everything revolves around the January 1st assessment date.  Property values are determined as of January 1st.  A person’s right to a homestead exemption is determined based on whether they qualified on January 1st.  The taxability of newly-constructed improvements is determined based on whether they were substantially completed as of January 1st.  And, according to the Florida courts, a property’s entitlement to an exemption or special classification must also be based on how the property was actually used as of January 1st.  This “actual use doctrine,” as it is commonly referred to, can cause headaches for owners of agricultural property and owners of vacant land or other property that is in a state of transition.  This article will attempt to address some of those issues.

Fla. Stat 194.042 provides that all property shall be assessed according to its just value as of January 1st of each tax year.  It also goes on to provide that improvements shall not be taxed unless they are substantially completed as of January 1st of the tax year in question.  Likewise, Fla. Stat. 196.031 requires a taxpayer’s entitlement to the homestead exemption to be determined as of January 1st of each tax year.  Notably, the statutes do not expressly require the taxability of other types of property to be determined as of January 1st.  However, Florida courts have held that the character of a particular parcel of land, including whether or not it should be classified as agricultural, is determined by its use as of January 1st.

Impact on Agricultural Property

Established agricultural operations generally should not have difficulty establishing their entitlement to an agricultural classification as of January 1st of each tax year.  The problems tend to arise when a property is being newly converted to agricultural use or when it is being transitioned from one type of growing crop to another.  For cattle-grazing operations, problems can also arise if the cattle is frequently rotated among different parcels, leaving some parcels with no cattle present on January 1st.  Thus, in the agricultural context, the question of what constitutes actual use of the property for agricultural purposes can be a bit tricky.  If a parcel is used throughout the year as part of a larger cattle grazing operation, but the cows happened to be grazing another parcel on January 1st, does that mean that the property was not actually used for agricultural purposes on January 1st?  Unfortunately, the courts have offered little guidance on this issue, and thus the answer tends to vary from county to county.

With respect to growing crops, the most common issue seems to be whether a property is being actually used for agricultural purposes if no crops have yet been planted as of January 1st.  One appellate court held that there was no evidence of agricultural use as of January 1st where the crops were not planted until late January and, as of January 1st, 90% ofthe property was not even cleared.  In effect, the property was being prepared for future use, but was not actually used for growing crops as of January 1st.    However, if a property owner has in fact made significant efforts to clear, plow, irrigate and otherwise prepare the property for planting, that would seem to constitute actual agricultural use, especially if the crop in question is one that is not usually planted until the spring.  In such a situation, it is critical that the property owner document every effort made to prepare the property for planting.

Unfinished and Remodeled Buildings

Fla. Stat. 196.192 provides that all property owned by an exempt entity and used for exempt purposes shall be exempt from taxation.   The seminal case dealing with application of the actual use doctrine to exempt entities is the Supreme Court of Florida’s decision in Dade County Taxing Authorities v. Cedars of Lebanon Hospital Corp.  In that case, the patient care facility in question was completed in mid-1973 and issued a certificate of occupancy in August 2003.    However, the facility was not used for patients during 1973 or 1974.  The court thus found that it was not exempt because it was not actually usd as a hospital or other exempt facility on January 1, 1974.  Other courts have followed the Cedars of Lebanon case, albeit reluctantly in some cases.  In one case, the appellate court reluctantly denied an exemption to a Miami Dade Community College building that was acquired on January 1st, where the remodeling for use as an educational facility was not completed until July of that year.   Thus, charitable and other exempt entities should be mindful of the actual use doctrine before engaging in any property acquisition or remodeling projects.

Vacant Land

Of course, the actual use doctrine also applies to vacant land owned by exempt entities although, as discussed below, the legislature has loosened the doctrine with respect to churches and charities such as Habitat for Humanity.  Years ago, following the Cedars of Lebanon case, the courts generally denied exemptions to churches, charities and other exempt entities that owned vacant land.  In one case, the court denied an exemption to the American Lung Association for vacant land on which it planned to construct its new corporate headquarters.  Another court denied an exemption to the Palm Beach Community Church for 47 acres on which it had planned to build a church.  Following these cases, many counties had difficulty deciding whether to grant an exemption to vacant land owned by Habitat for Humanity, which was being held for future building purposes.  The circuit court in Sarasota County ruled against Habitat for Humanity on two occasions, but those cases were not appealed.

In 2007, the Legislature amended Fla. Stat. 196.196 to provide that property owned by an exempt entity is considered to be used for religious purposes as long as the church has taken affirmative steps to prepare the property for use as a house of public worship.  Such “affirmative steps” may include permitting activities, creation of plans, land clearing, site preparation,  and similar activities.  When that legislation passed, the Property Appraisers inquried as to whether that standard could also be applied to charities like Habitat for Humanity, but in AGO 2008-52, the Attorney General replied in the negative.  Thereafter, in 2009, the Legislature passed a similar statute allowing charities like Habitat for Humanity to receive an exemption on vacant property if they have taken affirmative steps to prepare the property to provide affordable housing to low-income persons or families.

Naturally, the question arises as to whether this standard could be applied to vacant land owned by other exempt entities that have acquired land for future use.  The Attorney General opinion indicates that the “affirmative steps” standard is limited to religious property, and now future low-income housing property owned by charities such as Habitat for Humanity.   However, absent further legislative amendments expanding the “affirmative steps” test, there is also the possiblity that a similarly-situated exempt entity could claim to be denied equal protection of the laws if they are denied an exemption on vacant property on which they have taken affirmative steps toward constructing potentially-exempt improvements.  Charities and other exempt entities in this situation should be prepared to address these issues before acquiring new property or commencing a new construction project.

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