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Liens filed over property taxes

Property owners who may have tried to beat the system by claiming homestead exemptions on parcels other than those where they live have been tripped by a property appraiser's investigation.

Citrus County Property Appraiser Ron Schultz said Friday that his office has filed seven tax liens against people who no longer live at the properties but were still claiming the tax exemption on the first $25,000 of assessed value.

In all seven cases, the owners were renting the homes to others, making the owners ineligible for the tax break.

"When somebody gets an exemption that they don't deserve, the rest of us pick up their tax share," Schultz said. "An exemption is worth $400 to $600 a year, depending on where you live in the county, and that's a lot of dollars."

Under state law, homestead exemptions are available only to permanent Florida residents who own property and claim it as their permanent residence.

Schultz said the liens stem from a yearlong inquiry that totaled 211 in-depth investigations. The ongoing probe was conducted by Casimer Smerecki, a retired law enforcement officer now working part time for the office. The investigation program is headed by James R. Evans, deputy appraiser.

"This whole issue has been of significant public interest for several years," Schultz said. "The Legislature gave us the tools to fight this thing. We've started the process, and now it's started to bear fruit."

As a result of the investigation, 28 homestead exemptions were revoked in the 1993 tax year, and so far, 74 have been revoked this year. Schultz said eight more cases are being considered for tax liens, and 42 cases are pending.

He said these property owners face not only payment of the base amount of taxes due, but also a 50 percent penalty on the total unpaid taxes and an interest charge of 15 percent a year.

The total value of the seven liens is about $9,000, plus the 15 percent interest charge. Homestead exemptions revoked during 1993 yielded $11,200 in additional taxes; while the 74 exemptions revoked this year total $29,600.

Schultz said before the rules were changed a couple of years ago, he could only file criminal charges against people who violated the Homestead Exemption Act. However, now he is able to levy civil fines against violators.

People who have bought a new home, recently moved or who recently became Florida residents have until 7 p.m. Tuesday to file for exemptions, he said.