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Lawsuit calls tax appraisals unequal

A lawsuit challenging the fairness of Florida property taxes will be pursued "to the nth degree" and, if successful, will force all property appraisers in the state to re-examine their rolls. Two school districts, Palm Beach and Sarasota, and the Florida School Board Associations filed the lawsuit in Leon County Circuit Court on Tuesday.

"You have some taxpayers in Florida that apparently are paying more than their fair share and some taxpayers in Florida at the county level that are not paying their fair share," Wayne Blanton, executive director of the school board organization, told reporters Wednesday.

Blanton would not name which counties his group thought were not paying their fair share. However, he said he agreed with state Sen. Bob Johnson that coastal counties generally were assessed at the proper level.

Johnson, a Sarasota Republican who filed a similar lawsuit 10 years ago that went nowhere, requested an investigation by a statewide grand jury earlier this year. The panel's report, released last month, said the property tax system in Florida was "broken" and that property owners throughout the state are unevenly taxed.

Blanton said the changes the lawsuit seeks will not necessarily result in a windfall for government because if assessments go up in some areas, the Legislature could decide to lower the mandatory millage rate.

Under the state Constitution, cities and counties can tax property up to 10 mills. A mill is $1 in tax for each $1,000 of assessed taxable value. School districts also operate under that constitutional cap but are additionally bound by legislative requirements.

Each year, lawmakers decide how much money districts must contribute to run their schools. This year, it's almost 5.9 mills. Except for a discretionary 2 mills beyond that, districts must ask voters to approve a higher level.

But Blanton did acknowledge that if successful, the lawsuit probably would "produce some additional money" for schools.

Blanton said he expected nearly all of the state's school districts to join in the suit as well as school administrators and teacher's unions.

"We will be pursuing this to the nth degree to resolve the issue once and for all," he said.

If successful, the lawsuit will force every property appraiser in Florida to look at the tax rolls and re-examine what has been sold in each district to make sure that it is assessed at the fair-market value, Blanton said.

But he refused to blame county property appraisers, elected everywhere except Dade, even though he thinks some do undervalue property.

But he said property appraisers should not "be faulted (because) there's no central guidance from the Department of Revenue."