Since I was elected Hernando County property appraiser, I decided it was important to crack down on homestead and other exemption fraud. I wanted to revisit our procedures and provide my staff with the tools necessary to assist in the detection of fraudulent homestead and/or exemption claims. Everyone should pay their fair share, and this type of fraud affects all of our taxpayers.
The homestead exemption was initially passed in 1933 by the Florida Legislature and approved by the voters in 1934. The exemption is a great benefit to all Florida homeowners who occupy their property as their permanent residence.
Homestead and other exemption fraud occurs when a property owner receives an exemption they are not entitled to. Fraudulent exemptions take needed funding away from our county services (law enforcement, schools, etc.). Those tax dollars have to be made up somewhere, and law-abiding taxpayers are left to make up the difference.
The goal of the property appraiser's exemption investigations unit is to detect and investigate homesteads and other exemptions that appear to be fraudulent or noncompliant. Homestead exemption noncompliance most commonly falls into one of the following categories:
• Not the owner's permanent/primary residence.
• Owner and/or spouse receive multiple exemptions and/or tax benefits.
• Owner receives an exemption on rental property.
Florida Statutes 196.131(2) and 196.161(1)(b) address the unlawfulness of knowingly and willfully giving false information for the purpose of claiming or continuing to receive a homestead exemption. These statutes also give authority to the property appraiser when fraud is detected to lien unpaid exempted taxes within the prior 10 years, along with a penalty of 50 percent of the unpaid taxes for each year and 15 percent interest per annum.
We have 115,563 parcels in the county, of which 43,988 receive a homestead exemption. There are several private companies that offer for a fee "homestead exemption fraud detection." We have always felt that because our office has the expertise to conduct these investigations, it is in the best interest of the public that our office maintain this process. Private companies generally charge a percentage of the tax amount recovered, which could be significant.
The results in the accompanying chart are reflective of tax years 2013, 2014 and 2015. The "total taxes replaced on roll" category is a direct result of the investigated cases, to include liens.
I have made it my priority to inform and educate the public through updates on my website, providing presentations to the community and the Board of Realtors, advising the public of what the property appraiser does for them.
With the help of Hernando County taxpayers, we can eliminate fraud. There is a link on my website — hernandocounty.us/pa — to report exemption fraud, or you can contact the property appraiser's exemption investigations unit at (352) 754-4190 (press 8).
John C. Emerson is the Hernando County property appraiser.