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Review of Pinellas' real estate affairs offers only general suggestions

A panel appointed to review how Pinellas County buys and sells land has finished its work, but its report to the County Commission paints in broad strokes, not fine detail.

In particular, the report does not address two weaknesses identified during the fallout over the purchase of Property Appraiser Jim Smith's land last year. Although private appraisers and others have suggested it, the panel did not recommend:

•  Requiring that the real estate staff provide more information to outside appraisers hired to estimate the value of a piece of property. Too often, critics say, private appraisers have gotten spotty information.

•  Bringing back a job that no longer exists at the County Courthouse — the on-staff review appraiser.

Those who know the county's real estate system, including one person involved in the Smith deal, have said both steps would improve the real estate acquisition process.

The panel's three-page report instead makes more general suggestions that panel members say will increase transparency, speed up the work flow and facilitate communications.

The five-member panel consisted of chairman Andrew Hines, former chief executive with Florida Power; St. Petersburg College president Carl Kuttler: St. Petersburg Housing Authority Commissioner Deveron Gibbons; Mark Mahaffey, who heads the Mahaffey Co., which has real estate interests statewide; and retired real estate executive Stephen Meyers.

The panel agreed with the recommendations of a consultant the county hired for $252,000 to review county real estate practices in the wake of the Smith controversy.

In June, commissioners voted unanimously to buy Smith's undeveloped land along Brooker Creek for $225,000 — nearly four times the 2006 assessed value assigned to the property by Smith's own office.

A grand jury investigated the purchase, indicted no one, but criticized several public officials and the county's procedures. The grand jury also recommended reforming the county's real estate department.

The county's consultant, UGL Equis, recommended consolidating county real estate functions into one department and set out a three-year plan for improving how county real estate employees work and share information. The panel agreed that the county should:

•  Consolidate real estate functions into one department.

•  Establish a real estate management focus there to promote better strategic and fiscal planning for real estate assets.

•  Improve information systems and data flow.

•  Keep accountability clear and transparent throughout processes.

•  Build better staff teamwork with well-defined roles, recognition and better communication.

The report also suggests that county commissioners should delegate more authority over real estate operations to the county administrator.

Commissioners, one of whom went around the county administrator to talk to two staff members about whether to buy Smith's land, could then focus more on policy "without becoming bogged down," the panel said.

Kuttler added a line to the report to require that the County Commission get a prompt notification whenever a real estate transaction does not follow the approved process.

Since the Smith purchase, the county has adopted two procedural reforms. Officials now compare appraisals done on parcels of land with the properties' tax assessment. And whenever the county considers buying land from an elected official or a county employee, the status of the owner is publicly disclosed.

Kuttler said he had asked County Administrator Fred Marquis whether the reforms that committee members were discussing would sufficiently address problems with the appraisal process.

"Fred indicated that he did not think that it would be a problem when you are centralizing it," Kuttler said Monday. "I was satisfied."

The report, however, does not address the information and mission given to outside appraisers or how their work is reviewed. In the Smith case, there were problems in both areas.

The appraisal, done in just over two weeks, was based on a site plan, not a survey. The appraiser urged the county four times in his report to do more study on how wetlands on the site might affect its value.

That didn't happen.

And an outside review of that appraisal was limited in its scope. The county used to have two staffers to review appraisals, and they often caught errors and problems. But those jobs were eliminated in 2003.

Greg Johnson, the appraiser who reviewed the appraisal of Smith's lot, told a grand jury that he thought real estate functions needed to be consolidated.

So he was glad to see that suggestion included in the committee's report, but he said Monday that if he had been on the panel "the report would have been a little longer."

Johnson, who teaches property appraisal, has met with county officials to offer suggestions on how to improve the county's approach to appraising property.

In August, Johnson sent a letter with suggestions to then-commission Chairman Ronnie Duncan. Duncan said he sent the letter to then-County Administrator Steve Spratt, but Spratt and his staff said they didn't see it for weeks. Nor did the letter get logged into the county's computer tracking system.

Johnson has yet to receive any reply, and the county hasn't even begun to address appraisal standards, he said.

"There should be a cadre there who specializes in appraisal services," he said. "Even if it's just one person, that person should be totally trained in that function."

Theresa Blackwell can be reached

at tblackwell@sptimes.com

or (727) 445-4170.

Review of Pinellas' real estate affairs offers only general suggestions 04/07/08 [Last modified: Monday, April 7, 2008 10:28pm]
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