Wednesday, February 21, 2018
Business

Sen. Dennis Jones represents Pinellas, but for tax purposes, home is Marion County

TALLAHASSEE — Dennis Jones has spent more than 30 years as a Pinellas County lawmaker, the last nine as a state senator representing the county's beach communities.

But for tax purposes, Jones' home is now more than 100 miles to the northeast in the rural hamlet of Dunnellon.

And it appears to be okay.

Jones, who will leave the Senate this year because of term limits, switched his homestead exemption to a residence in southwest Marion County in 2008. The switch happened shortly after voters approved a constitutional amendment that allowed homeowners to transfer accumulated tax benefits from one property to another.

His wife, Susan Jones, already lives there nearly full time and is a registered Marion County voter. In an interview, Dennis Jones said he lives at the Dunnellon residence on weekends.

The Florida Constitution says legislators must be "an elector and resident of the district from which elected."

Jones says his current full-time residence is in Pinellas County, where he is a vice president at St. Petersburg College. He also votes in Pinellas County and, when the Legislature is not in session, lives in a duplex his wife owns in Redington Shores on weekdays.

Florida law says homeowners may claim a homestead exemption on their permanent residence.

The arrangement does not concern the Pinellas County Property Appraiser's Office, as long as the couple considers the home where they're claiming the homestead exemption as their permanent residence.

"We're not trying to make sure that that person sleeps in the house every night," said Amanda Coffey, the assistant to Property Appraiser Pam Dubov.

Florida's election law says legislators must reside in the districts they represent but little else on the topic. Jones, a Republican, has represented Senate District 13 since 2002, an area that consists of most of the western half of Pinellas County.

Reached at his Dunnellon home Friday, Jones said he has owned property in Marion County since 1970. That predates his political career, which began in 1978 when he was elected to a Pinellas seat in the Florida House.

The transition away from Pinellas County is a deliberate one, he said. Jones, a retired chiropractor, has served as both the House speaker pro tempore and Senate majority leader. The senator also owns a home in Tallahassee where he lives when the Legislature is in session, but Dunnellon is his future home, he said.

"This is where we decided where my family wants to reside when I leave public office," Jones, 70, said.

The Florida Election Code doesn't have a specific definition for what makes someone a resident of an area, according to an advisory opinion from the Division of Elections.

"However, this office and Florida courts have consistently construed legal residence to mean a permanent residence, domicile, or permanent abode, rather than a residence that is temporary," the document states.

A homestead exemption isn't the sole indicator of whether or not a person has established residency, the opinion stated.

The best proof is where a person says he lives but other evidence can also be considered, such as the address on his driver's license, where he receives mail, and the location of personal effects.

By placing the homestead exemption on their Dunnellon property and taking advantage of accompanying caps on yearly increases, the Joneses reduced their property tax bill by several thousand dollars.

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

Tia Mitchell can be reached at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.

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