Effect of Gulf Oil Spill on Property Tax Assessments


As Floridians are bombarded by headlines portending 10-30% losses in property values due to the BP oil spill, many property owners are probably wondering how this will affect their property tax bills.  This article will explain how and when the oil spill could affect property tax assessments, current litigation regarding these issues, and Governor Crist’s latest Executive Order authorizing interim assessments for affected properties.

How will the oil spill affect my 2010 property tax assessment?

Unfortunately, your 2010 taxes will be based on the value of your property as of January 1, 2010, prior to the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon and the subsequent oil spill.  Thus, it is unlikely that Floridians will see any reduction of their 2010 assessments as a result of the oil spill until at least 2011.  Some eager class action lawyers have jumped the gun a bit by filing a class action lawsuit against the Property Appraisers of all affected counties, seeking an order requiring them to consider the effects of the oil spill in calculating the 2011 assessments.  However, since the Property Appraisers are already required by state law to consider any pretty much any conditions that affect the fair market value of a property, that lawsuit would appear to be a bit premature, to put it nicely.

What if my property value is negatively affected by the oil spill?

The Property Appraisers are required to consider such factors as the condition of the property, the present cash value of the property, and, for income-producing properties, the income from the property.  Thus, if sale prices of properties along the Gulf coast decline as a result of the oil spill, or if hotels see greater vacancies, those factors will influence the 2011 assessments.  The primary case regarding contaminated property in Florida is Gulf Coast Recycling Inc. v. Turner, in which the court affirmed the value adjustment board’s reduction of the value of an apartment complex to $100 where the evidence showed that the costs associated with the cleanup of the contaminated property exceeded the price that would be paid for the property.

Of course, in the case of an oil spill, the property may not actually be contaminated as of the assessment date, but may suffer a loss in value due to its proximity to the contaminated waters.  This is commonly referred to as a “stigma.”  While Florida has not directly addressed this issue, other state courts have acknowledged that a stigma factor can affect property even if the contaminants are removed, and that stigma may be considered in determining the property’s value for tax purposes.

Are the Property Appraisers required to make a reduction to properties affected by the oil spill?

While the Property Appraisers are required to assess all property at its fair market value as of January 1st, there is currently no specific requirement that they make a specified percentage reduction to assessments of property affected by the oil spill.  That said, last year the legislature passed a statute providing for special tax treatment for property affected by defective drywall.  Thus, it is always possible that we will see similar legislation for properties affected by the oil spill.

Didn’t the Governor issue an Executive Order regarding assessment of properties affected by the oil spill?

Today, Governor Crist issued Executive Order 10-169, which authorizes (but does not require) Property Appraisers in the 26 counties in which he has declared a state of emergency to provide “interim assessments” of any properties that may have suffered a loss in value due to the oil spill.  These interim assessments will not affect the property owners’ tax bills.  Rather, the purpose of the interim assessments would be to assist property owners with documenting the loss in value to their property so as to help substantiate their claims submitted to BP.

I am sure that the Property Appraisers are going to be a bit surprised by this Order, as it is generally not their constitutional duty to serve as expert witnesses in their constituents’ private lawsuits.  Also, as the Order is not mandatory, many property appraisers may choose not to provide this extra valuation service.  Thus, rather than relying on the county Property Appraisers to assist them with their claims, property owners would be wise to compile their own evidence of any diminution of value, especially if it can be attributed specifically to the oil spill.

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Obtaining “Working Waterfront” Classification for Florida Property Tax Purposes


In 2008, Florida voters amended the Florida Constitution to allow “working waterfront” properties to be assessed based on the current use of the property, as opposed to the highest and best use of the property.  Pursuant to Amendment 6, waterfront land used for commercial fishing, public boat launches, marinas, drystacks, and water-dependent marine manufacturing and repair facilities can no longer be assessed at its fair market value, which often represents the value of the property for a more-intensive use, such as for a hotel or condominium project.  Instead, the property must be assessed based on its actual use as of January 1st of each tax year, beginning with the 2010 tax year.

Sounds great, right?  Well, the bad news is that, despite the approval of this amendment by the voters, the Florida legislature has yet to pass any enabling legislation to define the types of properties that qualify or, more importantly, to provide a procedure for applying for and receiving classification as a working waterfront.  Oops.  The Senate considered SB 1468, which would have required taxpayers to apply for working waterfront classification by March 1st of each year, unless the counties waived the annual application requirement, but that bill died in committee.

In July 2009, the Florida Department of Revenue issued an informational bulletin, PTO 09-24, advising the county property appraisers that, because this constitutional provision is self-executing, working waterfront properties are entitled to be assessed at their actual use beginning in the 2010 tax year, regardless of the lack of enabling legislation.  Thus, while some property appraisers may disagree with the DOR and decide not to apply the constitutional amendment until the legislature passes enabling legislation, I expect that most counties will try to begin implementing the new law this year.

So, absent any procedures or forms for taxpayers to use in applying for working waterfront classification, how should one go about seeking this classification?  Some property appraisers may choose to develop county-specific procedures for taxpayers to use in their jurisdiction, but others may not.  The important thing to remember is that the property appraisers’ systems will generally not automatically recognize which properties qualify as working waterfronts.  So, if you believe your property qualifies for this classification, you should contact your county Property Appraiser and make sure that they are aware of how your property is being used, and that they have all of the information they need about your property to assess it based on its actual use.

VAB Evidence Part 2: Use of Sales That Close After the January 1st Assessment Date


One of the more confusing issues that seems to arise during Value Adjustment Board hearings is the question of whether and to what extent the Property Appraiser and the taxpayer can use sales that close after the January 1st assessment date to support their respective opinions of value.  The short answer is that there is no legal prohibition against using post-assessment date sales as evidence.  Ultimately, the issue is the just value of the property as of January 1st, and any evidence that tends to indicate the value of the property on that date may be admissible.

The confusion about this issue arose, in part, because of Florida Department of Revenue Bulletin PTA 06-08, wherein the Department of Revenue advised Florida county property appraisers that the use of sales that occur after January 1st to prepare their tax rolls would be inconsistent with the requirements of Florida law.  This bulletin raised some eyebrows among the appraisal community, as many appraisers and attorneys felt that, particularly when the market was in a state of transition on January 1st, post-assessment date sales could be indicative of a market trend that affected the value of the property on January 1st.  The bulletin also appeared to conflict with the case of Bystrom v. Equitable Life Assurance Society, wherein the appellate court held that evidence (in that case, income data) that comes to light after the assessment date may be relevant to the value as of January 1st.

Thereafter, the Department of Revenue issued Bulletin PTO 08-02, which replaced Bulletin PTA 06-08.  In this new bulletin, the Department reviewed the case law in more detail and came to the conclusion that post-assessment date sales may be considered if they are probative of the just value on the assessment date.  Specifically, the Department advised county property appraisers that post-assessment date sales may only be considered in preparing the tax roll when the following four conditions are met:

1.  When post-assessment date sales are probative of just value for the subject property as of January 1st;

2.  When post-assessment date sales are not used as a substitute for pre-assessment date sales;

3.  When post-assessment date sales are considered only in conjunction with pre-assessment date sales;  and

4.  When the consideration of post-assessment date sales is otherwise consistent with law.

In short, the Department indicated that, in preparing their tax rolls, county property appraisers may consider post-assessment date sales, as long as they are considered in conjunction with pre-assessment date sales and the sales are indicative of the January 1st value.

Of course, as a practical matter, because the property appraisers must submit their tax rolls by July 1st, they are simply unable to use sales that occur late in the year.  Thus, sales that occur later in the year will likely not be admissible to prove that the Property Appraiser failed to properly consider those sales, since it would have been impossible to consider a sale that had not yet occurred.  And even when there is a sale of the actual property in question, the court in Haines v. Holley held that a sale that occurs in June should not necessarily be relied on to assess the property as of January 1st.  However, based on the current state of the law and the Department’s most recent bulletin, it appears that both the Property Appraiser and the taxpayer could conceivably use post-assessment date sales to defend their respective opinions of value, as long as they can tie the sales to the January 1st assessment date.

VAB Evidence Part 1: Assessments of Similar Properties


Florida Statute s. 194.034(5) provides that “for the purpose of review of a petition, the [VAB] may consider assessments among comparable properties within homogeneous areas or neighborhoods.”  Conversely, the Florida Supreme  Court has long held that a court may not reduce a taxpayer’s asssessment below its fair market value based on a mere showing that parcels of other taxpayers are assessed at a lesser amount.  This creates a bit of a conundrum for the taxpayer, property appraiser and the VAB in trying to determine whether and to what extent evidence of the Property Appraiser’s assessment of other properties is relevant and admissible.

In Deltona v. Bailey, the Florida Supreme Court relied on the constitutional requirement that all property be assessed at its just value in holding that taxpayers’ assessments may not be reduced below just value just because other taxpayers may be assessed at a lower amount.  The exception to this rule is when the taxpayer can plead and prove that it is being “singled out” and specifically discriminated against vis-a-vis the other taxpayers generally in the county.  Based on the Deltona case, some VABs have refused to consider evidence of the assessment of comparable properties, despite the existence of Florida Statute s. 194.034(5).  It is possible that they are correct in doing so, as any reduction based solely on the assessment of other comparable properties would likely be unconstitutional, absent evidence that the assessment of the subject property exceeded its just value. 

However, another view is that the statute allows VAB petitioners to submit evidence of assessments of comparable properties in order to help prove that the Property Appraiser’s assessment was “arbitrarily based on appraisal practices which are different from the appraisal practices generally applied by the property appraiser to comparable property within the same class and within the same county,” per Florida Statute 194.301.  Prior to 2009, if a taxpayer could meet this burden, their burden of proving that the assessment exceeded just value would be reduced from “clear and convincing evidence” to a “preponderance of the evidence.”  Beginning in 2009, if the taxpayer meets this burden, the Property Appraiser’s assessment is overturned and the VAB must either set the value or remand to the Property Appraiser for a reassessment.

Viewed this way, evidence of the assessment of comparable properties could have limited relevance if it tended to support the taxpayer’s contention that the Property Appraiser used different appraisal practices for their property that were not  used for other similar properties.  However, based on Deltona v. Bailey, the VAB would still not have the authority to reduce a taxpayer’s assessment based solely on other assessments.  To reduce the taxpayer’s value, the VAB would need to see evidence that the assessment exceeded just value.

Also, it is important to note that Fla. Stat. 194.034(5) only applies to VAB proceedings, not to actions in circuit court.  Thus, taxpayers who take their case to court should not plan to rely on this statute.

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.

Frequently Asked Questions About Property Tax Bills


With TRIM notices being issued around Florida in the coming weeks, this post will attempt to answer three of the most commonly-asked questions about property tax bills:  (1) Why is my property assessed at a higher value than my neighbors’ similar property?  (2) Why is my assessed value higher than the price I paid for the property?  (3) Sales prices are going down, so why is my assessment going up?

Why is my property assessed at a higher value than my neighbors’ similar property?  The reason the property tax system was historically considered to be a fair system of taxation was that everyone was assessed based on the fair market value of their property, and that was that.  In the last few years, however, the number of exemptions, special classifications and assessment caps has exploded, thus resulting in similar properties within the same neighborhood being taxed at vastly different rates, depending on when the property was purchased, whether the purchaser was a first-time home buyer, whether the property has a homestead exemption and whether the owner “ported” their cap from another property.

The short answer is that, while the assessed values may differ for a variety of reasons, if the properties are truly similar, the just value should reflect that similarity.  If the just values are substantially different, it is most likely due to differences in the size or configuration of the lot, the age of the improvements, or the overall quality of the construction.  However, if you feel that a mistake has been made, you should contact the Property Appraiser.

Why is my assessed value higher than the price I paid for the property?  The just value of your property is determined as of January 1st of the tax year in question.  While the Property Appraiser is statutorily required to consider the price paid for your property, he can disregard that factor if it is not relevant, i.e. if the sale occurred too long ago or it was not an arms-length transaction, for example.  In most cases, the assessed value is influenced the most by sales of similar property in the area during the last calendar year.

As an example, if you paid $100,000 for your property in January 2005, but similar properties were selling for closer to $200,000 in the last few months of 2008, your 2o09 assessment will likely be higher than what you paid for the property.

If I re-finance my property or take out a line of credit, will my assessment increase?  Probably not.  The Property Appraisers generally base their determinations on actual consummated sale transactions between willing buyers and willing sellers.

Sales prices are going down, so why is my assessed value going up?  Two issues are at play here.  First, the Property Appraiser is required to assess all property at its value as of January 1st, and must submit his or her completed tax roll to the Department of Revenue by July 1st.  Thus, the Property Appraisers tend to rely more on sales that occurred during the previous calendar year, and possibly sales from the first couple months of the current year.  Thus, if sales begin to decline in the spring or summer, that decrease probably will not be recognized until the following tax year.

The other possible reason is the “re-capture” provision of the Save Our Homes Amendment.  If you have had a homestead exemption on your property for many years, chances are your assessed value (on which taxes are determined) has been much lower than the fair market value of your property.  This is because, by law, the assessment of homestead property cannot increase more than 3% per year (or the percent change in the CPI).  However, if your assessment is lower than the fair market value of your property, the assessment will increase by that 3% each year until it matches the just value.  So, even if the just value of your property decreased, as long as your assessed value was lower, that assessed value will continue increasing by 3% per  year or the CPI, until it equals the just value.

How Does the Property Appraiser Determine the Value of Your Property?


  The Florida Constitution requires the county Property Appraisers to assess all property at its just value, which has been defined as “fair market value.”  The purpose of this post is to explain, in a nutshell, how the Property Appraisers determine the just value of residential, commercial and tangible personal property in their jurisdictions.

First, it is important to note that the Property Appraiser must consider eight statutory factors, such as the present cash value, the highest and best use and current use of the property, location, quantity or size, the cost of the property and improvements, the condition of the property, the income from the property, if any, and the net proceeds from the sale of the property.

Residential PropertyIn most counties, residential property is assessed by a computer-assisted mass appraisal [“CAMA”] system.  The Property Appraisers’ staff gathers market data and inputs it into the CAMA system, which produces values based on recent sales and construction costs.  The values for each neighborhood may be reviewed by the staff and compared to recent sales to verify the accuracy of the assessments.

Commercial Property.  Values for commercial property may be calculated in a variety of ways.  Income-producing property, such as hotels, apartment complexes and office buildings, may be assessed by the income approach, which utilizes rental and sales data from similar properties.  The sales comparison approach may also be used for commercial properties that are of a type that is commonly bought and sold.  Unusual or special-purpose properties may be assessed by the cost approach, which adds the depreciated cost of the improvements to the land value to produce an total assessed value.

Tangible Personal Property.  Tangible personal property is self-reporting, and thus the Property Appraisers rely heavily on taxpayers to accurately report the quantity, age and condition of their personal property.  If deemed accurate, costs reported by the taxpayer are usually depreciated according to economic life tables and depreciation schedules published by the Florida Department of Revenue, or developed by the local Property Appraiser based on local market data.