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Hillsborough property appraiser questions impartiality of new Value Adjustment Board member

TAMPA — In the three years she disputed her home's valuation, Sara Cucchi of Odessa became very familiar with Hillsborough County's property appraisal system.

She won only a partial victory in those challenges, but her experience led her to become more active in property law issues, even joining a lawsuit against Hillsborough County Property Appraiser Rob Turner.

She also applied for an appointment to Hillsborough County's Value Adjustment Board, which mediates disagreements about property assessments and exemptions.

County commissioners approved her appointment last week, although two commissioners now say they didn't know she had sued the office whose decisions she will be reviewing. That, they concede, would have been worth knowing ahead of time.

Turner and his lawyer now contend Cucchi became so passionate about property tax law that she can't fairly serve on the board — particularly because she is still part of the ongoing lawsuit against Turner's office.

"This is somebody who had multiple layers of very aggressive action against participants on all sides of this process," Turner said. "It suggests she would not be able to perform her duties in an impartial and totally objective manner."

Cucchi, a 45-year-old stay-at-home mother of three, said she sees no potential problems between the still-active lawsuit and her appointment to the Value Adjustment Board. She didn't mention the lawsuit in her board application.

"It wasn't me against the property appraiser," Cucchi said. "It wasn't an adversarial relationship from that."

All she favors, Cucchi says, are "proceedings that are fair and consistent with the law."

The Value Adjustment Board is often likened to an informal court system for contesting appraisals, mediating between the property owner and the property appraiser. In large municipalities like Tampa, special magistrates hear each case and make recommendations to the board, which can approve or remand them. The board consists of two citizens and three elected officials.

"What makes the system work," Turner said, "is to have a system that has no bias."

In February, Turner sued the state Department of Revenue, contending it unlawfully imposed new rules on county property appraisers. The rules related to evidence provided in Value Adjustment Board hearings and training materials for special magistrates.

Property appraisers across the state and two property appraiser associations supported Turner in the suit.

On the other side, the Department of Revenue was backed by the Florida United Tax Managers Association, a group that represents large property owners. Represented by prominent Tallahassee tax lawyer Ben Phipps, Cucchi also joined the department in the lawsuit in April, over Turner's objections.

A judge overseeing the case in the state's Division of Administrative Hearings ruled Wednesday, siding with Turner on one issue and with the Department of Revenue on two others.

The Property Appraiser's Office had not decided immediately after the ruling whether it would appeal the judge's order.

Two county commissioners said they were unaware of the lawsuit when Cucchi was appointed by a 5-2 vote.

Commissioner Kevin Beckner, who voted for a different applicant at the June 15 meeting, formerly sat on the Value Adjustment Board. He resigned immediately after Cucchi's appointment, citing time restraints that would prevent him from devoting sufficient attention to the board.

He said he wasn't sure if a lawsuit would constitute a conflict of interest, but that type of information may be relevant during the disclosure process.

County Commission Chairman Al Higginbotham voted for Cucchi. He said this week he was unfamiliar with the lawsuit until the Property Appraiser's Office brought it to his attention Wednesday.

"I will look into whether our application has a question about conflict of interest with the county or about being involved with lawsuits," Higginbotham said. "That certainly merits being addressed."

The application asks if there are reasons why candidates may not be able to fulfill their duties. State administrative rules say citizen members of the Value Adjustment Board "shall be appointed in a manner to avoid conflicts of interest or the appearance of conflicts of interest."

Luann Finley, director of board services for the County Commission, said she did not notice anything indicating that Cucchi was ineligible to apply when compiling the list of candidates.

In petitions from 2008 to 2010, Cucchi challenged a 1996 valuation.

Though the Property Appraiser's Office lowered her valuation, Cucchi continued to ask for a further reduction, which the board denied. Her petitions led to additional legal expenses for the Value Adjustment Board after Cucchi requested that the board's attorney recuse herself.

Stephanie Wang can be reached at swang@sptimes.com or (813) 661-2443.

Hillsborough property appraiser questions impartiality of new Value Adjustment Board member 06/24/11 [Last modified: Friday, June 24, 2011 11:31pm]
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