Department of Revenue Clarifies VAB Hearing Procedures


The Florida Department of Revenue recently issued Property Tax Oversight Bulletin 09-29, which clarifies the order of presentation of evidence and other procedural issues that have arisen in the 2009 Value Adjustment Board hearings.  Among other things, the bulletin explains that:

  • The first issue to be considered at the VAB hearing is whether the Property Appraiser’s assessment will be presumed correct.
  • In determining whether the Property Appraiser’s assessment is presumed correct, the Property Appraiser should be required to present their evidence first.
  • Evidence regarding the general appraisal practices of the Property Appraiser’s office or approval of the tax roll by the Department of Revenue is insufficient to establish the presumption.  The Property Appraiser must explain how those practices were applied to the specific property at issue.
  • If the Property Appraiser does not present evidence on this issue, or if the presumption is otherwise lost, the VAB may establish the value or remand to the Property Appraiser for a reassessment.
  • Regardless of whether the Property Appraiser retains the presumption of correctness, the taxpayer still has the right to a determination of the appropriateness of the Property Appraiser’s appraisal methodology.
Advertisements

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.

 

Evidence Disclosure Requirements for Florida VAB Hearings


The Florida statutes provide a fairly detailed procedure for the exchange of evidence between the taxpayer and the Property Appraiser.  However, the statutes are a bit vague on the consequences of failing to disclose evidence in a timely manner.  This post will try to address some common questions about Florida’s evidence disclosure requirements for Value Adjustment Board hearings.

Is the Property Appraiser required to share their evidence with the petitioner prior to the VAB hearing?

It depends.  Pursuant to section 194.011(4), Fla. Stat., the Property Appraiser is required to disclose their evidence to the petitioner at least 7 days prior to the hearing only if the petitioner discloses their evidence (witness information and copies of documentary evidence) to the Property Appraiser at least 15 days prior to the VAB hearing and the petitioner sends the Property Appraiser a written request for disclosure of the Property Appraiser’s evidence.  If the petitioner fails to disclose their evidence in a timely manner, or if the petitioner discloses their evidence but neglects to send the Property Appraiser a written request for disclosure of evidence, the Property Appraiser is under no duty to share their evidence with the petitioner.  That said, the Property Appraiser’s records are, for the most part, still subject to the disclosure requirements of the Public Records Act, and thus a petitioner may still be able to make a request for specific documents.

If the Property Appraiser does disclose their evidence in a timely manner, will it be excluded from evidence?

No.  If the petitioner complies with the requirements of section 194.011(4), Fla. Stat. and the Property Appraiser fails to disclose their evidence at least 7 days prior to the hearing, the hearing will be re-scheduled, but there is no indication in the statute that the Property Appraiser’s evidence would be inadmissible.

Is the petitioner required to disclose their evidence to the Property Appraiser prior to the VAB hearing?

No.  If the petitioner wants to see the Property Appraiser’s evidence prior to the hearing, the petitioner must disclose their evidence at least 15 days prior to the hearing.  However, according to the training materials provided by the Florida Department of Revenue to the VABs and Special Magistrates, the petitioner’s initiation of an evidence exchange with the Property Appraiser is strictly optional.  If the petitioner chooses not to disclose their evidence, the evidence is not necessarily inadmissible.  The only consequence provided in the statute is that the  petitioner does not have a right to see the Property Appraiser’s evidence in advance.

What if the Property Appraiser sends the petitioner a request for documents?  Must the petitioner respond?

Yes.  Pursuant to section 194.034(1)(d), Fla. Stat. and the Higgs v. Good case, if the Property Appraiser makes a written request for information and the taxpayer fails to respond, the taxpayer will be prohibited from using that information at the VAB hearing or in court.  Thus, while the taxpayer is  not required to initiate an evidence exchange, failing to respond to a written request from the Property Appraiser could affect their right to introduce the requested information at a later hearing.

What transmission methods can be used for exchanging evidence?

Rule 12D-10.0044 of the Florida Administrative Code provides that the exchange of evidence can be accomplished by mail, fax, e-mail, hand delivery or any other method agreed upon by the parties.  See Rule 12D-10.0044 for more information on delivery methods.

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.

DOR: New Statute Places Initial Burden of Proof on Property Appraiser


Subsequent to my earlier blog post on The New Reduced Burden of Proof in Florida Property Tax Appeals, the Florida Department of Revenue has revised its VAB training materials and issued its DOR VAB Training Revision – September 18 2009, which reflects a significant change in how it is interpreting the new burden of proof  statute.

Page 8 of the new training materials indicates that the Property Appraiser has the initial burden of coming forward with evidence that the assessment complied with section 193.011, Fla. Stat. and professionally accepted appraisal practices.   They also indicate that if the Property Appraiser does not prove by a preponderance of the evidence that the assessment met those requirements, the assessment will be overturned and the VAB must either set the value or remand to the Property  Appraiser for a reassessment.

This represents a dramatic change from the training materials released on September 1, 2009, which continued to place the burden of proof on the taxpayer, consistent with the statutory language that states that the party bringing the action has the burden of proof.  I will be reviewing the  revised training materials in more depth and will let you know if there are any additional significant changes.

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.