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Portability spews tax fight after sale of Tampa house

TAMPA — Tony Beeny is doing what lots of Floridians are doing these days — challenging his property tax bill.

Beeny thinks Hillsborough County Property Appraiser Rob Turner got the market value wrong on a Tampa Palms home he sold in May. The sale price and what Turner's office says the home is worth are more than $100,000 apart.

But Beeny's petition is unlike the nearly 15,000 other appeals filed in Hillsborough this year: He wants the market value of his old house — and the tax bill — increased.

Beeny is looking to take full advantage of portability, a central plank of the Amendment 1 property tax overhaul approved by voters in January. It allows homeowners to take their tax cap savings under the Save Our Homes program from one home to another.

The Save Our Homes cap limits annual tax increases on homesteaded property to 3 percent annually. So the more the market value exceeds the assessed value, the greater the tax savings Beeny can transfer to his new home.

A favorable ruling would net Beeny about $1,500 a year on the tax bill for his new home.

"It's like I explained to the Property Appraiser's Office," Beeny said. "It's not right for somebody to pay more tax because you over-assessed them. And it's not right for somebody to pay more tax because you under-assessed them."

But what's good for Beeny would be a rude housewarming for the new owners of his old home. If the county's Value Adjustment Board accepts his request, Jason and Christine Pandolfo could see their property tax bill shoot up.

The potential hit: As much as $3,000 annually over what they expected to pay.

"How would he like to have that done to him?" asked Jason Pandolfo. "I'm kind of baffled that the county would allow him to do this."

Whether the county will remains a question.

Beeny's petition, one of the first of its kind in the state, has property tax officials reaching for a rule book that is still being written. Interpretations of what it says vary greatly.

Howard Moyes says Beeny's petition is a no-go. As deputy director of the property tax oversight program for the state Department of Revenue, he is considered Florida's point man on portability.

He says legislation passed this year specifically prevents someone from challenging the value of a home they no longer own.

"It's crystal clear," Moyes said.

Will Shepherd, general counsel to the office of the Hillsborough property appraiser, disagrees. He thinks the legislation means only that someone who sold a home a year ago can't retroactively challenge his tax bill a year later in order to get a higher portability benefit.

Certainly, he reasoned, someone should be able to appeal their assessment the same year if they're on the hook to pay part of the bill.

"I'm not sure it's so clear," Shepherd said.

Pam Dubov, property appraiser-elect in Pinellas County, which has received a similar appeal, sides with Shepherd. She attended a property appraiser's conference in St. Petersburg last week and was surprised to hear Moyes' take on the legislation.

"I don't think that's what the Legislature intended at all," said Dubov, a lawyer.

Nobody is more eager to hear the outcome than the Pandolfos.

The couple moved to Florida from the Philadelphia area to start a family after Jason Pandolfo got a new financial services job. They picked the home on Catlin Drive in Tampa Palms in part for its big back yard.

They paid $450,000 in May for the four-bedroom, three-and-a-half-bath home with a screened-in pool. As with most sales, each side agreed to pay a pro-rated portion of the expected tax bill for the year, which is about $6,200.

Then the Pandolfos got a visit from the Property Appraiser's Office. The prior owner was appealing the taxable value of the home and an inspector wanted to make sure nothing was missed in calculating its value.

"We were both in a state of shock," Jason Pandolfo said. "When you sell your home, it's not the right way to do business to come back and take advantage of the homeowner afterward."

Beeny, a Realtor specializing in the Tampa Palms area, had listed the house in March, with plans to downsize. He bought a smaller house in the neighborhood the same month his old house sold.

Then came his property tax notice for the Catlin address. It listed the value of his old home at $328,393, not much more than he paid for it four years earlier. That would mean he would get no portability benefit.

Beeny actually thinks the value should be $478,500. The property appraiser sets values for tax purposes on Jan. 1, and prices have been falling. Since the house sold in May, he figures it was worth more when the property appraiser set its value.

"I have a pretty good peg on the value of homes in Tampa Palms," he said, spouting an array of statistics.

The Hillsborough Appraiser's Office defends the value it placed on the Catlin Drive home. Director of Valuation Tim Wilmath said it reflects sales patterns across the Tampa Palms area, not just the sale of a particular home.

That's to make sure tax bills are not skewed because someone got a good deal or a bad deal on a home. The office also generally deflates values across the board for a variety of reasons.

"We've treated everybody in the neighborhood the same way," Wilmath said.

Beeny's new home was valued by the Property Appraiser's Office at nearly $100,000 less than what he paid for it. He's not challenging that tax assessment.

The county's Value Adjustment Board will be the final arbiter on the Catlin Drive property, provided the case moves forward.

The upshot, if Beeny prevails: The tax bill at his new home would fall from about $4,500 annually to about $3,000. The bill on the Catlin Drive home could climb to about $9,400 annually.

Wilmath said his office is not bound to follow the Value Adjustment Board's ruling in future years. So it's unlikely the Pandolfos would take the full hit. But their bill could go up, possibly substantially.

"The possibility is there," he said. "The serious possibility is there."

Bill Varian can be reached at varian@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3387.

fast facts

A glossary on portability

Homestead exemption: A home used as a primary residence is eligible for a $50,000 exemption on its taxable value.

Save Our Homes tax cap: In 1995, an amendment to the Florida Constitution capped increases to the taxable value of a homesteaded property to no more than 3 percent annually, sheltering it from spikes in market value. When a home sells, the cap comes off and the taxable value is reset to the market value. The county property appraiser determines both taxable and market values, though property owners can appeal.

Portability: Approved by voters in January, portability allows a homesteader to transfer the value of that cap — the difference between market and taxable value — to a new home, up to $500,000. If the homeowner is downsizing to a less costly house, the cap is converted to a percentage of savings.

How this applies to Tony Beeny: He sold his home on Catlin Drive in Tampa Palms and purchased a new home in May. The property appraiser determined that because of the declining home sales market, the taxable and market value of the Catlin address he bought four years ago were about the same: $328,393. So Beeny gets no portability benefit.

Beeny is appealing, saying the Catlin house was worth $478,500 when values were set Jan. 1.

Portability spews tax fight after sale of Tampa house 11/30/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 3, 2008 3:42pm]

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