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Thousands risk losing tax break

The Hillsborough Property Appraiser's Office is stepping up its effort to collect homeowners' Social Security numbers.

To make sure every eligible homeowner retains his or her homestead exemption this year, the Hillsborough Property Appraiser's Office has obtained the Social Security numbers for all but 6,200 homeowners in the county.

The problem is, those could be the homeowners who can least afford to lose the tax break.

Warren Weathers, the county's chief deputy appraiser, said "the vast majority" of homeowners who haven't answered four previous requests for the numbers are in West Tampa and Tampa's inner city, and they could lose a $600-a-year tax break if they do not respond by April 1.

"We are concerned," Weathers said Tuesday. "We don't want hardworking men and women to lose this. It's too valuable."

Today, the Property Appraiser's Office will send a fifth mailing to homeowners it still has not heard from. Because of the high concentration of Spanish-speaking residents in West Tampa, the letters will be printed in English and Spanish and will be labeled, "Important Tax Information Enclosed."

The homestead exemption takes $25,000 of a home's value off the tax rolls if the person who owns the home also lives in it. In Hillsborough, $25,000 in property value equals about $600 in property taxes.

Five years ago, the state of Florida began requiring that everyone seeking or receiving a homestead exemption provide a Social Security number to local tax officials.

The goal was to prevent people from cheating by claiming more than one homestead. The Florida Department of Revenue estimates 40,000 to 45,000 people statewide have more than one homestead exemption.

Under state law, the property appraiser's office has to remove the homestead exemption for anyone who does not supply a Social Security number. But the costs of losing the tax break do not end there.

Homeowners who fraudulently claim a homestead have to pay the $600 in tax, plus a 50 percent penalty, plus 15 percent interest while the tax and penalty are owing. Moreover, they are liable for the tax, penalties and interest for up to 10 years before they lose the exemption.

As a result, Weathers said, the cost of losing an exemption could total $8,000 to $10,000 and could result in a lien being placed against the property in question.

There is also the possibility, he said, that a property owner who loses a homestead exemption could have his house reassessed without the cap provided by the Save our Homes amendment.

In 1992, Florida voters added the Save Our Homes amendment to the state Constitution to protect themselves from rising assessments and tax bills brought on by rapid development. The amendment limited annual increases in homestead property values to the rate of inflation, and it capped those increases at 3 percent.

That means that homeowners who lose their homestead exemptions could also lose their protection under the Save Our Homes amendment and could see their assessments rise by more than 3 percent.

Weathers said the Social Security numbers, once turned over, are not public record and can only be seen by two people in the property appraiser's office. Some homeowners have also questioned whether a federal privacy law meant that they did not have to turn over their Social Security numbers. Weathers said that law was changed to allow local and state officials to gather the numbers for "tax administration purposes."

So far, the Property Appraiser's Office has gotten Social Security numbers for nearly 220,000 homeowners in the county. Those homeowners do not need to to anything else, but Weathers said the Property Appraiser's Office must hear from the remaining 6,200 by April 1. Ideally, he said, they should respond by March 1 so officials have time to work out any problems.

"It's the last 2 percent and they seem to be the most difficult," Weathers said.

_ Richard Danielson can be reached at (813) 226-3383 or danielsonsptimes.com.

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