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State Rep. Cruz ordered to pay back taxes for improper homestead exemption

TAMPA — The Hillsborough County property appraiser has put a lien on a house owned by state Rep. Janet Cruz to collect more than $30,000 in unpaid taxes and penalties.

Since 2004, Cruz, D-Tampa, has claimed two property tax exemptions given to homeowners for primary residences. State law allows each family unit only one homestead exemption.

The lien was filed on a home at 4114 Empedrado St. that she bought in 1983.

But she moved to another home shortly after marrying physician Stephen Rifkin in 2003.

County officials say Cruz owes $32,752 in penalties and unpaid taxes from 2004 through 2008. That does not include 15 percent annual interest, which will add thousands of dollars to the required payment.

Cruz, who can fight the lien in court, said Wednesday she will pay the bill.

"I have always operated within what I thought was my obligation as a taxpayer. As soon as this was brought to my attention, I immediately contacted the Property Appraiser's Office and went through the proper channels to remedy this situation," she said in a prepared statement. "I will certainly do what any responsible citizen would do and pay what I am obligated to pay."

In a letter to the property appraiser last month, Cruz's attorney, Frank Miranda, argued that Florida law allows a homestead exemption for a house if a "legally or naturally dependent" person lives there, even if the homeowner does not.

Cruz's 29-year-old son, Raymond, lives at the Empedrado Street house. She has said that he is dependent on her, and she pays all of the bills at the house. State records, though, show that Raymond Cruz briefly owned a catering company and applied to take a general contractor's exam.

Regardless, the law cited by Miranda doesn't apply in this case, said Will Shepherd, general counsel for the property appraiser.

"We ultimately came to the conclusion that even if he were naturally dependent on her, she couldn't claim the homestead exemption on that property because she as a family unit with her husband already has one," Shepherd said.

Shepherd said the law Miranda referred to would apply to a situation, for example, where parents owned a house in Gainesville and their child lived there while going to school, but the parent lived in Tampa. In that case, he said, the parents could have the homestead exemption on the Gainesville home even though it wasn't their primary residence.

"Because Janet Cruz is married and her husband has a homestead exemption, she's not allowed a second homestead exemption," Shepherd said.

Cruz won't face any civil or criminal charges. Shepherd said if the property appraiser uncovers an egregious attempt to avoid paying taxes, such as having five or six homesteaded properties, the case might be forwarded to the State Attorney's Office.

"In situations like this, where to the extent that we can determine it doesn't look intentional, the monetary penalty is pretty huge in and of itself," he said.

Cruz won a special election Feb. 23 to fill the term of Democrat Michael Scionti, who resigned to take a position in Obama's administration. She is running for re-election in November.

State Rep. Cruz ordered to pay back taxes for improper homestead exemption 03/17/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 17, 2010 10:01pm]
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