BROOKSVILLE — For most Hernando County homeowners, their property tax bill this year has dropped more like a feather than a rock, as they were led to believe by lawmakers and the governor.
Still, even a slight decrease in taxes is welcome news, apparently.
Property Appraiser Alvin R. Mazourek said late last week that the volume of calls to his office after the annual Truth in Millage notices hit mailboxes has been surprisingly light.
Roughly 400 people called on Monday, he said, and the number dropped every day since. Considering that the office mailed out nearly 120,000 TRIM notices, that's relatively few complaints.
Of course, not that every property owner is thrilled with their bill.
"I'm sure that we have not pleased everyone,'' Mazourek said. But steps that his office has taken this year, such as including an informational brochure and a list of frequently asked questions and answers with the notices, may have answered property owners' questions.
The most frequently asked questions among callers to Mazourek's office deal with why their taxes have not "dropped like a rock,'' as Gov. Charlie Crist and others promised in the run-up to the passage of Amendment 1 in January?
"A lot of tax bills have gone down,'' Mazourek said, "just not as much as the legislative leaders led us to believe.''
The passage of Amendment 1, which doubled the $25,000 homestead exemption for qualified homeowners, was supposed to provide meaningful tax relief. For most Hernando homeowners, however, the savings has been minimal at best.
The TRIM notices show what you paid last year; what your tax bill will be this year if the proposed changes to the taxing authorities' budgets are made; and what you will be billed if no budget changes are made. The difference typically is $100 or so.
Several factors are in play. First, the additional $25,000 homestead exemption does not apply to the valuation used to levy school taxes, which is often the largest single element of the tax bill.
This has been a big surprise to many people expecting larger tax breaks from the doubled homestead exemption.
Next, while the county's tax rate has gone down, most property assessments have gone up. For homesteaded properties under the Save Our Homes tax cap, the inexorable 3 percent rise in assessments continues, even during this turbulent time for real estate markets.
How can this be?
Blame it on the so-called "recapture'' laws passed in the 1970s. Mazourek said a property's assessment will rise until it meets the market value.
Assessments do fall sometimes. If someone purchased a house a year or so ago, he explained, there may be a small difference between the assessed value and the market value. That person may see their assessment drop this year or next if the falling market value drops below the assessed value.
In fact, for the first time in nearly 20 years, Hernando County's taxable property values fell last year, by nearly 13 percent. Factors influencing that include the dropping real estate market and the low-income senior homestead exemption, which trimmed another $50,000 in taxable value from every qualified senior's home.
Mazourek's office uses the market value approach to set assessments, meaning that his staff plugs in information from the sale of homes to set each property's resale value.
But with the real estate market stagnant, how can the property appraiser find enough resales to establish true market values?
Turns out that while the market is slow, it is not standing still. From January to July this year, there have been 1,700 qualified sales of homes. In July alone, 206 houses changed hands in Hernando.
In the same seven-month period last year, 2,600 homes were sold. Mazourek estimated there will be 2,700 homes sold by the end of this year; fewer than last year but still sufficient to set resale market values.
The full impact of the rising number of foreclosed properties and short-sales on property values is just beginning to be felt. Since property appraising is done in arrears, meaning this year's market trends will show up on next year's tax rolls, Mazourek expects to see the force of the foreclosures in the 2009 values.
With so many changes occurring, it is easy for a property owner to become confused or angry over the TRIM notice. To those residents, Mazourek extends an invitation to call or drop in for an in-depth analysis of their situation. They can also appeal to the county's Value Adjustment Board.
"We'd rather have them come in and talk to us,'' he said, adding, "we do make adjustments.''
Greg Hamilton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 754-6113.