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Resident uncovers tax goof

Joseph Caetano is a hairdresser, not an accountant or a computer technician. But he just saved Hillsborough County's number crunchers a $345,000 headache. Officials said Caetano was poring over a county computer printout last week when he found an error and showed the county it will collect about $345,000 more in property tax money this year than originally thought.

"We didn't catch it, but I'm glad he did," said Edna Fitzpatrick, deputy clerk to the Property Appraisal Adjustment Board, whose report Caetano was reading when he found the mistake.

The adjustment board oversees the appeal process by which property owners can get their property assessments reduced. The report, which shows how much money the county will lose in tax collections because of those reduced assessments, said this year's total loss was $5.24-million, Fitzpatrick said.

But Caetano, 57, who devotes much of his free time to researching county property appraisals, noticed something was amiss.

A house whose appraised value had been reduced from $113,000 to $100,000 showed a loss in taxes of more than $345,000. It really should have been about $345, officials said.

Fitzpatrick said a clerk typed in the wrong figures. Instead of typing a tax rate of .26 mills for the house, the clerk typed in 26 mills, Fitzpatrick said. A mill is $1 of tax for every $1,000 of assessed taxable value.

"Thank goodness for the citizens!" said County Commissioner Jan Platt, who chaired the Property Appraisal Adjustment Board.

She said she wants assurances from Fitzpatrick that no other errors are in this year's report and that there won't be any next year.

But another question might be what a beauty salon owner from Tampa Palms was doing poring over a 120-page computer printout that most county officials never read.

"I'm interested in politics," Caetano said.

He said he's had his eye on local government since he first moved to Tampa from Massachusetts four years ago.

"When I first received my tax bill, to pay that amount of tax I figured something is wrong in the county," Caetano said.

Since then, he said he has been dissatisfied with his own property appraisals, and he's made it a personal crusade to watch over most matters of the county dealing with appraisals and taxes.

Fitzpatrick said that she's grateful for Caetano's catch and that her staff has double-checked this year's report and found no more errors.

As for next year, she said a new computer program won't allow anyone to enter such a large number for the tax rate without checking to make sure it's correct.

Fitzpatrick said she will run a new report and the new figure for lost tax revenue, $4.89-million, will be advertised in newspapers to meet legal requirements.