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.

Filing a Late VAB Petition in Florida


In Florida, petitions to the county value adjustment board must be filed no later than 25 days after the Property Appraiser mails the Notice of Proposed Property Taxes (or TRIM notice, as it is often called).  If a taxpayer misses that deadline, their VAB petition will only be considered  if they can demonstrate that the late filing was due to “good cause.”

The Florida courts have not had much opportunity to consider what constitutes good cause for filing a late VAB petition.  However, in one case, the appellate court held that the fact that a non-profit corporation had difficulty assembling its directors to approve the filing of the VAB petition was not such an extraordinary circumstance that would justify filing a VAB petition after the statutory deadline.

In its training for the 2009 VAB Special Magistrates, the Florida Department of Revenue explains the meaning of “good cause” as follows:

“Good cause” means the showing of extraordinary circumstances.  While this is not a compete list, some examples of circumstances that may affect the taxpayer’s ability to file on time are:  (a) personal, family, or business crisis or emergency or emergency at a critical time or for an extended period of time;  and (b) physical or mental illness, infirmity, or disability.

When a taxpayer files an untimely VAB petition, they must attach an explanation of their reasons for filing the petition late.  Those reasons are then considered by the VAB or its designee.  In some counties, the question will be referred to a Special Magistrate for a hearing.  If the Special Magistrate finds good cause, then a later hearing will be scheduled on petition itself.  Other counties allow the attorney for the VAB to make the good cause determinations.

The Department of Revenue’s training materials also provide that the VAB should consider whether the delay will affect the performance of its function in the property tax process.  Thus, a petition received a few days after the deadline is probably much more likely to be considered than a petition received months into the VAB hearing process.

Requesting an Informal Conference with Your County Property Appraiser


Florida law allows taxpayers to request an informal conference with their county property appraiser to discuss the assessed value of their property.  At first blush, it would seem that resolving a dispute informally, without the time, expense and stress of a VAB hearing or court proceeding would be a no-brainer.  Yet, in my experience, there are a number of reasons why taxpayers choose to go straight to VAB without meeting with the Property Appraiser first.

One common reason is the short time available for filing a VAB petition.  Often, by the time a taxpayer receives their TRIM notice, digests it and does a little research about their assessment, the deadline to file a petition is right around the corner.  So they file a petition and then think that the decision is up to the VAB.  What many people don’t realize is that, even after you file a VAB petition and, for that matter, even up to the VAB hearing itself, you can still communicate directly with the Property Appraiser’s office in an effort to reach an agreement. 

Another reason for failing to communicate with the Property Appraiser is the belief that the Property Appaiser’s office is not interested in resolving disputes.  That is generally not the case.  The staff in most Property Appraisers’ offices are not eager for a showdown at VAB.  While they are naturally going to want to defend their work, if you have a credible argument, they would much rather discuss your assessment now rather than later before the Special Magistrate.

A third reason is the taxpayer’s fear of “showing their hand.”  Many tax professionals caution their clients against meeting with the property appraiser because they are concerned that the property appraiser’s office will take advantage of the opportunity to discover the taxpayer’s case so they can be better prepared to defend their assessment at the VAB hearing.  While that is always a risk, by taking some steps, the taxpayer can improve their chances of having a productive meeting with the Property Appraiser’s office.  Here are some do’s and don’ts for meeting with the Property Appraiser’s staff:

Do . . .

  • Request a copy of your property record card and any sales comparison or other worksheets that the Property Appraiser has prepared.  Preferably, you would want to review these documents prior to the meeting, so that you can be prepared to discuss them and ask questions.
  • Make sure that you still file a VAB petition, if the deadline for filing is prior to your informal conference.  If you reach an agreement, you can always withdraw your petition.
  • Be courteous and respectful to the staff.  Remember, they are just doing their jobs;  they don’t get a bonus if the county collects more taxes.  And it can’t hurt to establish a positive rapport in the event you have issues in future years.

Don’t . . .

  • Spend your money on an appraisal from someone that the local Property Appraiser’s office views as a “hack” or a “hired gun.”  The Property Appraiser’s staff know which appraisers have integrity, and which do not.  And for that matter, so do the Special Magistrates and the judges.  As much as it may be tempting to hire the person who will give you the lowest value, just remember that credibility is everything.
  • Rely solely on assessments of other properties.  The Property Appraiser’s office wants to see sales that support your claim, not hear “my neighbor’s assessment is lower.”
  • Argue for a reduction based on your good qualities as a human being.  Property taxes aren’t based on personal merit, so your community service, charitable activities, military service, and strong work ethic aren’t going to get you anywhere.  Focus on the real issue – the value of your property.
  • Talk in terms of the amount of taxes you think you should be paying.  Remember, the property appraiser is only concerned with the value of your property, not the amount of taxes that you ultimately pay.  They are not going to be prepared to negotiate the amount of taxes that are due – only the assessed value.

Above all, remember that you are dealing with a government office that does not have a vested interest in producing a high tax roll.  The Property Appraiser sets the value;  the County Commission, School Board and  other taxing authorities set the millage rate that determines the amount of taxes you owe.  The Property Appraiser’s office is interested in determining the value of your property under the constraints of Florida law and the limited information that comes before them.  Provide them with quality information and conduct yourself with a professional attitude, and you are much more likely to be successful.

How to File a Late Homestead Exemption Application


So you missed the March 1st deadline for filing your application for a homestead exemption.  What now?  Are you completely out of luck?

Maybe not.  Florida law allows the Property Appraiser or the Value Adjustment Board to grant late-filed homestead exemption applications if the untimely filing was due to particular extenuating circumstances.  If you believe that your reasons for filing late meet this standard, you must do two things:

1.  File the late homestead exemption application with the Property Appraiser;  and

2.  File a petition with your county’s Value Adjustment Board no later than 25 days after the mailing of the TRIM notice by the Property Appraiser (which usually occurs in late August).

It is very important that you take both of the above steps, as the VAB cannot consider your petition unless you have filed an exemption application, however untimely, with the Property Appraiser.  The VAB will then notify you of the time scheduled for your hearing before the VAB or a Special Magistrate, where you will testify as to your reasons for filing late.  If the VAB determines that your untimely filing was due to particular extenuating circumstances and you were otherwise entitled to the exemption, your homestead exemption will be granted.

Deadlines Approaching for Value Adjustment Board Petitions


The deadlines are quickly approaching for filing petitions to the Value Adjustment Boards of many Florida counties.  Below are the deadlines for some of the counties within the author’s practice area:

Broward County                 September 18, 2009

Charlotte County                September 14, 2009

Collier County                      September 11, 2009

Hendry County                    September 18, 2009

Hillsborough County         September 14, 2009

Manatee County                  September 14, 2009

Miami-Dade County           September 18, 2009

Orange County                     September 18, 2009

Palm Beach County            September 14, 2009

Seminole County                 September 11, 2009

How much does it cost to file a VAB petition? The filing fee for a VAB petition is $15.  Depending on the nature of the dispute, the petitioner may also want to retain an attorney and/or appraiser to assist with the process, and those fees must be negotiated directly with the attorney or appraiser.

Where are petitions filed? Petitions are filed with the Clerk of the Value Adjustment Board (the Clerk of Court also serves as clerk of the value adjustment board).

How to File a Value Adjustment Board Petition


Property owners who disagree with the Property Appraiser’s assessment of their property have the option of scheduling an informal conference with the Property Appraiser, filing a petition to the Value Adjustment Board [“VAB”], bringing an action in circuit court, or all of the above.  If there is a clear error in the Property Appraiser’s calculations or in their assumptions about your property, you can probably resolve the issue with a simple phone call.  However, if there is a serious disagreement about the ultimate value of the property, and you want to file a VAB petition, this post will explain that process.

What is the VAB?

The VAB is a a five member quasi-judicial board that consists of two county commissioners, one school board member, and two citizen members (one appointed by the county commission and the other appointed by the school board).  The VAB is not affiliated with the Property Appraiser’s office. 

The Petition

The VAB petition forms can usually be obtained from the Clerk of Court and the Property Appraiser.  The petition must be filed with the Clerk of the Value Adjustment Board no later than the 25th day after the Property Appraiser mails the Truth in Millage [“TRIM”] notice to the taxpayers, which usually occurs toward the end of August.  The VAB may only consider untimely petitions upon a showing of good cause, so it is important to file by the statutory deadline.

The Hearing

Once your petition is filed, if you request a hearing, the Clerk will schedule a hearing before a Special Magistrate.  In small counties, the hearings may be held before the entire VAB.  However, in larger counties, special magistrates are appointed to hear testimony, take evidence, and make recommendations to the VAB.  In disputes about the value of real property, the Special Magistrate will be a real property appraiser.  In disputes about the value of tangible personal property, the Special Magistrate will be a tangible personal property appraiser.  In exemption and classification disputes, the Special Magistrate will be an attorney.  The Special Magistrates are hired by the VAB, and are not affiliated with the Property Appraiser’s office.

You are entitled to be represented by an attorney or other agent in the VAB proceeding, but that is not a requirement.  If you decide to proceed without an attorney, you should be sure to review both the applicable Florida Statutes and any local rules adopted by your county’s value adjustment board.  In particular, you need to be aware of the requirements for exchanging evidence prior to the hearing as failure to do so may result in your evidence being excluded. 

Prior to the hearing, the Special Magistrate will usually review the procedures with all of the petitioners in attendance and administer an oath to all testifying witnesses.  When it is your turn to present your case, you will have an opportunity to present your evidence and the Property Appraiser’s representatives or counsel will be permitted to cross-examine you.  You will have the same right when the Property Appraiser presents their case.  You may also be given time for a brief rebuttal (basically, the last word).  Some VABs are stricter than others in applying the rules of evidence.   In general though, you should always be prepared to present live witness testimony, as affidavits, letters and other hearsay evidence will usually not be admitted. 

The Decision

Some Special Magistrates will advise you of their decision at the conclusion of the hearing, but most will take the decision under advisement and issue a written recommendation shortly after the hearing.  The written recommendations are submitted to the Value Adjustment Board, with copies to both parties.  The Value Adjustment Board will hold a final meeting or meetings, during which it will either reject or approve the recommendations of the Special Magistrates.  Some VABs allow petitioners to address the Board, but generally no new evidence may be presented at the final VAB meeting.  Any evidence you want to present must be presented at the hearing before the Special Magistrate. 

Following the final VAB meeting, you will receive a Final Record of Decision, which represents the final decision of the Board.  If your petition is approved, your assessment will be reduced accordingly.  If it is denied, you would have the right to file an action in circuit court, but it must be filed within 60 days of the Record of Decision.

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