New Policies & Procedures for 2010 VAB Hearings


Just when I think I know everything there is to know about property tax appeals, they go and change the rules on me again.  VAB season should be interesting this year, given all of the new policies and procedures promulgated by the Florida Department of Revenue and its infamous (and at times puzzling) 2010 Value Adjustment Board Training materials that are required reading for all VAB Special Magistrates in Florida.  Below is a quick summary of some interesting administrative changes that are included in the new Rules and the VAB Training materials.

Good Cause for Late VAB Petitions

The DOR has now included a definition of “good cause.”  According to Rule 12D-9.015(11)(a), “good cause” means the verifiable showing of extraordinary circumstances.  Examples given by the DOR include a personal, family or business crisis, or a physical or mental illness, infirmity or disability that would reasonably affect the petitioner’s ability to timely file, as well as miscommunications with the Board Clerk, Property Appraiser or their staff regarding the filing time.

Agents for Taxpayers

Rule 12D-9.018(3) clarifies that a taxpayer may be represented by anyone, including a family member, and that the agent need not be a licensed individual.  However, a petition filed by an unlicensed agent must be signed by the taxpayer or be accompanied by a written authorization from the taxpayer.

Rescheduling Hearings

Florida Statute 194.032(2) allows a petitioner to reschedule a hearing one time without good cause.  In my experience last year, some Value Adjustment Board Clerks interpreted this section as only allowing the petitioner to request one rescheduling, regardless of whether they had a conflict or other good cause.  Rule 12D-9.019 clarifies that a rescheduling for good cause shall not be treated as the one time rescheduling to which a petitioner has a right upon timely request under Fla. Stat. 194.032(2).  This Rule also clarifies that if a hearing is rescheduled, the deadlines for the exchange of evidence shall be computed from the new hearing date, if time permits.

Effect of Failure to Provide Income Data/Higgs v. Good

Higgs v. Good is, of course, the case that held that where a taxpayer refused to provide his income data to the Property Appraiser when the Property Appraiser was trying to prepare the tax roll, the taxpayer could not later use that data in an administrative or judicial challenge to their property tax assessment (yes, the case did expressly say “administrative or judicial”).  Thus, the DOR has created quite a stir by stating in its 2010 VAB Training materials that “the case of Higgs v. Good does not apply to proceedings of the value adjustment board.”

Note, however, that Fla. Stat.  194.034 still prohibits the VAB from accepting evidence if the Property Appraiser requested it from the petitioner in connection with the VAB proceeding and the petitioner had knowledge of it, but declined to provide it to the Property Appraiser.  If such a request is made by the Property Appraiser (and it always is), Rule 12D-9.020(8) deems the petitioner’s evidence timely if it is submitted at least 15 days before the hearing.  If submitted less than 15 days before the hearing, it is still considered timely if the VAB finds that it was provided a reasonable time before the hearing.

Order of Presentation of Evidence

Rule 12D-9.024(7) clarifies that the Property Appraiser should present their evidence first in a hearing involving a value dispute.  Presumably, the taxpayer would still present their evidence first in exemption and classification hearings.  However, if the parties agree, the Special Magistrates generally prefer for the Property Appraiser to state their reasons for denial of an exemption before the taxpayer presents their case.

Applicability of Rules of Evidence

Rule 12D-9.025(2)(a) provides that VAB proceedings are not to be controlled by strict rules of evidence and procedure.  However, while formal rules of evidence do not apply, fundamental due process shall be observed and shall govern the proceedings.  The VAB Training materials further state that the VABs must not apply strict standards of relevance or materiality in deciding whether to admit evidence into the record, and that any decisions to exclude evidence must not be arbitrary or unreasonable.

In practice, what this likely means is that the VABs should give the parties a bit of leeway when their evidence is challenged on relevance or materiality grounds.  However, parties should still be wary about relying on hearsay to prove their case (such as affidavits or appraisals by persons not present at the hearing).  The Rules specifically allow petitioners to notify the VAB on their petition that they do not intend to appear, but that they would like their evidence considered anyway. In such situations, Rule 9.024(11) states that the VAB must take into consideration the inability of the opposing party to cross-examine the non-appearing party in determining the sufficiency of the evidence.

Applicability of USPAP

Florida Statute 194.301 now requires the Property Appraiser to comply with “professionally accepted appraisal practices.”  Some (including me) had speculated that these “practices” could be construed to include the Uniform Standards of Professional Appraisal Practice [“USPAP”].  Not so, however, as the DOR’s 2010 VAB Training materials have instructed the VABs and Special Magistrates that they are not authorized to determine whether a party is required to comply with USPAP or whether their evidence complies with USPAP.

The Eighth Factor (Costs of Sale)

Another issue that has many people scratching their heads is the DOR’s discussion of “the eighth criterion” in the VAB Training materials.  The materials seem to suggest that where the Property Appraiser has reported to the DOR on Form DR-493 a certain percentage adjustment for the eighth criterion of Fla. Stat. 193.011, but has not made such an adjustment to the petitioned property, the VAB should go ahead and make that adjustment.  Thus, it would seem that the DOR is advising the VABs to ensure that the same adjustment is made to all properties, regardless of the approach used to calculate the assessment and regardless of whether it would result in an assessment at less than fair market value.  I expect that the DOR will be receiving questions from many people about this, and hopefully further clarification will be forthcoming.

Working Waterfront Properties

The VAB Training materials clarify that, despite the legislature’s failure to pass implementing legislation, the constitutional provisions relating to working waterfront properties do apply in 2010, and the DOR anticipates issuing rules later in the summer of 2010.

Electronic Hearings

Finally, the new Rules allow for electronic hearings if the VAB approves of their use and the special magistrate agrees.  Procedures for the use of electronic hearings are set forth in Rule 12D-9.026.

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What to Expect at the Final Value Adjustment Board Meeting


So you finally received a decision from the Special Magistrate and, whether you won or lost, at least your VAB appeal is over and done with, right?  Not quite. For those Florida counties that employ Special Magistrates, the recommendations of the Special Magistrates are just thatrecommendations.  Florida Statute 194.035 authorizes the value adjustment boards to accept those recommendations without further hearing, but the ultimate authority to grant or deny a petition rests with the VAB, which consists of two county commissioners, a school board member, and two citizen members.

In most counties, the final VAB meeting is not particularly exciting.  Unless they have a question about a particular petition, the VAB members will usually move to approve all of the recommendations of each Special Magistrate as a group, without any discussion.  The Special Magistrates usually attend the final VAB meetings in case the Board members have a question, and occasionally Board members will ask a Special Magistrate to further explain their recommendations.   There is usually no opportunity for the taxpayer or Property Appraiser to re-argue their position as to a particular petition, although the Board will often have an open “public comment” session at the end of the meeting, after they have rendered their decisions.

Of course, there are exceptions.  Some county value adjustment boards have adopted procedures whereby the taxpayer or Property Appraiser can file written objections to a Special Magistrate’s recommendation, as long as they limit their objections to legal issues, and do not try to introduce any new evidence.  Other VABs allow Property Appraisers and petitioners to orally address the Board and object to adverse Special Magistrate recommendations at the final VAB meeting.

In general, even in counties where the VAB allows for oral or written objections, the parties are not allowed to introduce new evidence that was not presented at the hearing before the Special Magistrate. In fact, an appellate court recently held that a VAB did not have authority to hold a rehearing and allow new evidence to be presented after it had accepted the Special Magistrate’s recommendations.  This case does not necessarily preclude a VAB from rejecting a Special Magistrate’s recommendation and holding its own evidentiary hearing.  However, such a scenario is highly unlikely in most counties, as the VABs tend to defer to the expertise of the Special Magistrates.

After the final VAB meeting, the Clerk has 20 days to issue the final Record of Decision for each petition.  Taxpayers who are not satisfied with the decision of the VAB can file an action in circuit court, but such actions must be filed within 60 days after the decision was rendered by the VAB.   Actions challenging the denial of a homestead exemption must be filed no later than 15 days after the VAB renders its decision.  These deadlines are jurisdictional requirements that cannot be waived, so if you are considering filing a court action, it is essential that you contact an attorney as soon as possible, as failure to meet the deadline will result in dismissal of your court case.

Do VAB Special Magistrates Have Authority to Remand for a Reassessment?


It’s time for me to get on my soapbox about a big blunder the Florida Department of Revenue made in its new VAB forms and proposed rules.  Okay, so there was probably more than one blunder, but this one sticks in my craw because I filed a public comment and apparently nobody paid any attention.  The blunder I’m referring to is the authority apparently bestowed on the Special Magistrates by the DOR to order Property Appraisers to revise their assessments.  The Florida statutes allow the circuit court or value adjustment board to remand for a reassessment under appropriate circumstances, but the Special Magistrates plainly do not have any statutory authority to issue an order directing the Property Appraiser to change their assessment.

Florida Statute s. 194.301 provides that if the Property Appraiser’s assessment is overturned and the record lacks substantial competent evidence of value, the matter must be remanded to the property appraiser with appropriate directions from the value adjustment board or the court.  While the VAB is authorized by Florida Statute 194.035 to appoint special magistrates for the purpose of taking testimony and making recommendations to the board, the final decision as to whether to overturn the assessment and, if so, whether to set the value or remand to the Property Appraiser for a reassessment, is a decision for the board.  The Board can act on the recommendations of the Special Magistrate without further hearing, but nothing in the Florida statutes suggests that Special Magistrates have any authority to directly order a Property Appraiser to reassess property.

So why then did the Department of Revenue promulgate a form (Form DR-485R) that invites the Special Magistrates to order the property appraisers to reassess property even before the VAB has determined whether the original assessment is valid?  And why do the DOR’s proposed Rules provide procedures for the Special Magistrates to remand an assessment to the Property Appraiser without prior approval of the Value Adjustment Board?  I cannot answer these questions, but I will say that the proposed regulations are clearly beyond the DOR’s rulemaking authority.

Comments on the DOR’s proposed rules can be sent to VAB@dor.state.fl.us or you can call the DOR at (850) 922-7945.

 

Revised VAB Training Materials Available


The Florida Department of Revenue has released the 2009 VAB  revised on-line training materials, which reflect the recent statutory changes to Florida’s ad valorem tax laws.  The on-line training is mandatory for all persons serving as Special Magistrates in 2009.  For smaller counties that do not use Special Magistrates, the training is mandatory for the VAB members.  The materials are also available to taxpayers, attorneys and other interested persons.

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.