Fairness of property appraisals questioned at forum

OKEECHOBEE — The fairness of county property appraisals and tax bills was questioned during the political forum at Osceola Middle School on Oct. 17 and the candidates were quizzed.

Candidate Steve Cates said if elected, he will end the “nearly four decades of the good old boy system in the assessment process.

“Over the years I have seen erroneous assessments on the tax roll,” he said.

“I hope the voters of Okeechobee will look at the amount of money being donated to the different candidates’ campaigns,” he added.

“I am seeking this office because I know it needs new leadership,” said Sharon Wallace. “It needs a leader who will serve all of Okeechobee.” Mrs. Wallace said she will produce a tax roll that is fair, impartial and without politics.

“I will move away from subjective data handling that exists today,” she explained.

Mrs. Wallace said under her direction, the appraisal process will go beyond just using sales data and use GIS location-based analysis.

“Homestead fraud is big,” said Mickey Bandi, who is currently the assistant property appraiser in the Okeechobee County Property Appraiser’s Office.

He has worked there since 2002.

He said while there is a perception in the community that some property unfairly receives the benefit of taxation at the agricultural classification, Homestead exemption fraud is a big problem. He said the office has been working to identify those who are claiming Homestead exemption in more than one location and that they have been recouping the taxes lost to that fraud.

In response to a question about what changes he would make in the office.

Mr. Cates said, “there is a problem with the exemptions process now that it is not being reviewed closely enough.

“We do need to review these exemptions in Okeechobee County a little further and require people to give us documentation,” he said.
Mrs. Wallace said they need to restore faith and integrity in that office.

She said she would like to fully integrate GIS into the appraisal process, adding “it’s been available since the 90s.” She added that she wants to take politics out of the assessment process.

“I do think we need to add in some more desktop audits,” said Mr. Bandi. He said the county should require more documentation on property taxed at the agricultural classification.

“It’s a continual thing where people fall out of compliance,” he said. “They qualify one year and fall out of compliance.” He said he has “implemented a top down process where we looked at every homestead in the county. “That needs to be done again.”

“We need to embrace the technology we are currently embracing,” he added.

In response to a question on what sets her apart from the other candidates, Mrs. Wallace said, “I have over 20 years experience in Geographic Information System. It is the duct tape of technology. You use it every day.”

She said combining GIS with the land records will provide an analysis that can flag errors and inconsistencies.

“Without GIS, you cannot have a consistent, accurate appraisal,” she said.

Mr. Bandi said he has experience dealing with large taxpayers like Walmart and telecommunications. “They have people employed whose job is to lower their taxes,” he said. He said his experience in dealing with assessments of utilities and property owned by corporations can help avoid costly lawsuits.

“I have over 30 years experience in the property appraiser business,” said Mr. Cates.

“I am not taking any donations from anyone,” he added.

All three candidates said the Property Appraiser’s Office is currently behind in the reviews of appraisals.

“The statute requires property being reviewed every five years and we are a little behind in that,” said Mr. Bandi. He said aerial appraisals are helping to bring the county up to date.

He said when someone pulls a county permit to build a new structure or make improvements, the Property Appraiser’s Office is notified. However, he said they have a problem with structures that are either exempt from permits because they are on agricultural property or else the work was done without a permit.

“I do believe we need to inspect the properties more often,” said Mr. Cates.

“I would try to get them reviewed every 3 years. “There is constant change there.”

He said when property appraisals are not accurate, “we’re cheating our children out of money,” because taxes for the school system are based on those appraisals.

“Apparently we are behind,” said Mrs. Wallace. “I would not have let a field appraiser go, knowing we are behind.”

“The first thing I would do is get fully staffed,” she said. “The second thing I would do is use technology.

“There is technology out there that has not been embraced,” she said. “I have a slew of ideas and I can’t wait to bring them to this county and bring us into the 21st century.”

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