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Tampa council candidate's estimate of properties' values at odds with county numbers

TAMPA — On paper, Tampa council member Curtis Stokes' investment properties are flourishing.

The nine properties in Hillsborough County are worth about $4 million, according to a financial disclosure form he filed in January.

In reality, though, county records show his assets are far more meager. Property appraisers value the real estate at about $370,000.

The properties — a combination of vacant land and modest rental homes — along Palm and Mitchell avenues near Interstate 275 are clustered near the proposed site for a high-speed rail corridor.

The location, Stokes said, is what accounts for the difference in value between the two estimates.

"That is the value that the attorneys said it may be worth once high-speed rail is supposed to come across that property," he said.

City rules require candidates to list their properties' fair-market value on financial disclosure forms. The figure can be drawn from property taxes or a more accurate appraisal.

Stokes admitted he got his figure from neither.

But does that mean Stokes committed an ethical violation?

"Basically the issue is whether a good-faith estimate was made," Tampa City Attorney Chip Fletcher said.

"If he has an appraisal that is closer to the number or some other market indication for the value, than that would be the basis for a good-faith estimation," Fletcher said.

Stokes, who is running for the at-large City Council District 1 seat, said the market indicator is high-speed rail. He had a contract in 2008 to sell the property for $1.8 million but it fell through, he said. Stokes would not disclose the prospective buyer.

"Everybody goes by what they think the property goes for," Stokes said about his reasoning.

It would be up to the city's ethics commission to determine whether the estimation is acceptable. It is not investigating the issue.

"The city could initiate an investigation on their own, but this is not the type of thing they would typically get into," Fletcher said.

Penalties for ethical violations vary and can include fines.

Just 10 months ago, Stokes made a similar estimation on a financial disclosure form filed with the state after he was appointed to the Tampa-Hillsborough Expressway Authority. He valued the same properties at $2.3 million.

That was a conservative estimate of how much he thought it was worth at the time, Stokes said.

Tampa real estate attorney Ethan Loeb, who often deals with the commercial side of right-of-way sales, said the $4 million estimate seems too high.

"I would be awfully surprised if he got up to that kind of money for something like that," he said.

The county property appraiser values are usually much less than the fair market value, Loeb said, but being sold for right of way use does not increase a property's value by millions.

"I would be interested to see how he came up with it," he said.

Stokes said he based his $4 million estimate on right-of-way acquisition costs calculated by the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority for a different project. The board, which Stokes serves on, estimated the cost of land averaged $469 per square foot, he said.

He owns about 42,000 square feet of land. That would make his property worth about $20 million.

"Obviously, I'm not going to get that much," he said.

Stokes, who is vice president of community affairs at Fifth Third Bank, bought the properties with two business partners in 2006 with the intention of developing the land before high-speed rail had even been considered.

The properties consist of two single-family homes, two duplexes and five vacant lots. Stokes draws in about $18,000 a year in rental fees, he said.

In 2008, as the economy declined and property values plummeted, the partners backed out. He stayed.

"Being a banker and a person of my word, I thought it was my responsibility to take over the note," he said.

By 2010, Stokes was behind on payments for an $800,000 loan on the properties from Progress Bank. As the mortgage went into default, Stokes negotiated an arrangement with the bank, putting a stop to a scheduled court sale and foreclosure.

Now current, he said he plans to sit on the properties until the state offers to buy them for high-speed rail.

But that could be a while, if ever. Gov. Rick Scott is waiting on a ridership study due in February before making a decision on the fate of high-speed rail.

Right-of-way maps are still in the works, said Kathleen Joest, a right-of-way manager with the Florida Department of Transportation.

Stokes said he's not concerned that there are no offers on the table. Just the possibility of the state needing his property raises its value, he said. Rezoning the land to higher density also increased its value, he added.

The closer high-speed rail gets to becoming a reality, the higher the value goes, he said.

"The potential is getting bigger and bigger."

If the county did appraise his property at $4 million, Stokes' tax bill would be about $85,000, county property valuation director Tim Wilmath said. He now pays $8,000 a year.

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Shelley Rossetter can be reached at srossetter@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3374.

Tampa council candidate's estimate of properties' values at odds with county numbers 02/03/11 [Last modified: Friday, February 4, 2011 8:18am]
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