Tuesday, November 21, 2017
Politics

Hillsborough property appraiser often absent for professional group trips

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TAMPA — Hillsborough County Property Appraiser Rob Turner acknowledges that he has been out of the office more than usual in the past year and a half.

He said the main reason is his recent selection as president-elect of the International Association of Assessing Officers, which offers training and support for people who hold jobs like his.

A review of Turner's calendar by the Tampa Bay Times shows he has been out of the office nearly nine work weeks in the past 17 months, not including vacations, largely because of his travels with the organization. In a written response, Turner confirmed that number will grow soon when he travels to China on behalf of the organization.

Turner declined to say when he leaves for that trip, how long he will be gone or whether his wife will accompany him. He answered those questions by replying, "I will be on vacation for the period."

The Times asked his chief deputy Wednesday whether Turner will be available for questions in the next 10 days. The deputy, Warren Weathers, said, "No, he's on vacation." He declined to say anything further about the vacation. Officials with the IAAO did not return phone calls.

His disappearance comes as he faces the toughest re-election bid in his 16 years in office. Last month, Turner admitted sending pornographic emails to his former human resources director, whom he once dated while she was his employee. He has said the emails were part of a mutual and consensual exchange with Carolyn Filippone. She was fired as the Times was preparing a story about a discrimination complaint she filed against Turner.

State Sen. Ronda Storms, who is challenging Turner in the Aug. 14 Republican primary, is seizing on his travels and missed work time.

"Those are commonly called junkets," Storms said. "Traveling out of the country. Photo opportunities. Nice little vacations on the taxpayers' dime."

She said she found it interesting that Turner travels the country but doesn't belong to the association that represents property appraisers in Florida, which would be more relevant.

Turner noted that there are two associations in Florida, which compete with one another. He confirmed he belongs to neither, though he said he attends some of their meetings. And he noted that their membership fees exceed $6,000 each, compared to $175 annually per person for the IAAO.

"Because of the amount of the membership fees, and my belief that the two groups should combine in order to reduce their dues and be far more effective, I have resisted officially joining either group," Turner wrote.

Regarding the China trip, Turner wrote that the communist nation is moving toward "a more democratic form of property ownership and property assessment system." China, through the University of Beijing, asked the IAAO to send three people to provide instruction "on best practices of a property tax system," he said.

"I was asked to be one of the three, presumably in recognition of my outstanding knowledge and reputation in assessment practices," Turner wrote. "I will take vacation time for this trip and it will be paid in full by the IAAO, the Chinese government and me personally."

Asked about his other travels, Turner wrote that his expenses are sometimes picked up by IAAO when he visits other locales, if he's doing so as the group's representative. That's not the case if he is traveling to attend a conference or take courses.

He has spent $6,626 in the past 17 months on travel and $19,221 since May 2007, appraiser's records show. Turner said the benefits for taxpayers are many, and he highlighted two.

"The first benefit involves keeping up with the continually changing world of property tax assessments," he wrote. "Property tax laws change every year and this office must keep current on those changes in order to comply with the law."

Secondly, he said his participation has enabled him to lure some of the organization's conferences to Tampa, including its 2016 annual gathering.

Turner's calendar shows he has spent 43 work days traveling to events or courses, all but four of them with the IAAO or state property appraiser association meetings. His travels have taken him to Saskatchewan, Canada; Houston; Phoenix; Minneapolis; and Kansas City, Mo., where the IAAO is based, among other locales.

He was shown the dates captured by the Times review and generally agreed with the tally. Many of the trips lasted into weekends.

Of the 17 days shown this year, he noted that five were devoted to IAAO executive board meetings, another eight were other meetings or educational events and four were connected to a technology conference at which he was a speaker. Turner noted he was the keynote speaker at IAAO meetings in Connecticut and Saskatchewan last month. He attended just as his porn scandal was erupting.

He has also taken a week of vacation.

In 2011, Turner noted he traveled three times for courses, totaling 13 work weekdays. He spent six days on three trips for executive board meetings for the IAAO. And there was another seven days devoted to state or national events, including the IAAO's annual conference in Phoenix, on top of two weeks' vacation.

He said his wife, Donna, accompanies him on his IAAO business trips "on occasion."

"The time I spend with the IAAO enhances my effectiveness in leading this office, which ultimately benefits the taxpayers of this county," Turner said. "The cost of education is cheap compared to the cost of ignorance."

The winner of the Republican primary faces Democrat former state Rep. Bob Henriquez and no-party candidates James DeMio and Rob Townsend in the November general election.

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Bill Varian can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3387.

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