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County looking for way to help sinkhole victims

TAMPA — Homeowners with sinkholes caused by the January freeze might have more answers about property tax relief from county and state officials in the coming weeks.

Hillsborough County commissioners directed the Property Appraiser's Office Wednesday to explore the county's alternatives for helping affected residents.

Commissioners also unanimously voted to monitor any bills in Tallahassee that could lighten tax loads. They will discuss the issue again in two weeks.

"Let's see if there's any way to thread this needle," said Commissioner Al Higginbotham. "If not, we'll have to walk away from it."

Higginbotham specifically asked whether any adjustments or rebates could be given to home­owners with sinkholes who continue to pay property taxes for damaged homes.

In the past, after hurricanes and other natural disasters, state legislators have made exceptions for homeowners, he said.

Since the 11-day cold snap in January, more than 100 sinkholes have been reported in parts of Higginbotham's eastern Hillsborough district.

About 30 residents have reported damage to their homes, Higginbotham said.

The freeze prompted heavy water use by farmers trying to prevent crop damage. That led to dry residential wells, and sinkholes that claimed homes and blocked roadways.

Farmers in Hillsborough and Polk counties pumped nearly 1 billion gallons of water a day during the freeze, according to the Southwest Florida Water Management District.

Along with sinkholes, the agency said it has taken more than 750 complaints of dried or damaged residential wells.

At a recent meeting held by the water district, homeowners from Plant City and Dover with sinkholes said they felt helpless.

Though some are covered by their insurance companies and will look for new homes, they don't know what they'll do with land now considered useless.

Will Shepherd, general counsel for Hillsborough Property Appraiser Rob Turner, told commissioners Wednesday that state law requires county property appraisers to value all property as of Jan. 1.

"If a hurricane or sinkhole comes on Jan. 3, the state law says its full value is as of Jan. 1," he said. "If a home isn't completed, then (homeowners) don't pay for another year."

Those forced out of their homes would not lose their homestead exemptions, he said. But those determinations can't be made unless people contact the Property Appraiser's Office.

On average, the office monitors 360 properties with sinkholes, Shepherd said. The office regularly receives two to five complaints a week, and so far only one has been from a property owner in Plant City.

"If we don't know about it, we can't do anything," he said.

Chandra Broadwater can be reached at cbroadwater@sptimes.com, or (813) 661-2454.

County looking for way to help sinkhole victims 03/03/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 3, 2010 11:59pm]

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