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Pinellas is a pioneer in tracing homestead exemption fraud

Re: We need to do a better job policing homestead exemption, letter, Feb. 22.

I would like to thank the letter writer for asking some important questions regarding a recent Pinellas County homestead exemption violation, and for asking how widespread this tax-evasion scheme might be throughout Florida.

He and every other law-abiding citizen should be concerned about people claiming homestead exemption fraudulently and not paying their fair share of property taxes. But if the letter writer is unaware of the methods with which the Property Appraiser's Office discovers and handles fraudulent exemption claims, others might be, too.

Upon taking office in 1989 one of the first things I implemented was a unit dedicated to investigating nothing but homestead exemption fraud. What started as a department of one has developed into a unit of three full-time investigators, all former police officers, backed by full-time administrative support.

We are aware that not everyone will tell the truth on an exemption application in hopes they may end up paying lower property taxes. Some cases are investigated based on information a homeowner puts on that application. Other cases are reported by a neighbor or concerned citizen.The property appraiser's new Web site - www.pcpao.org /hfraud.html - provides a form to report a possible fraud (anonymously, if you prefer), and information about qualifications for all exemptions. There is even information on homestead exemption fraud.

When an investigation reveals that an exemption claim is truly fraudulent, a lien is placed on the property and interest and penalties are applied and accrued based on the amount of time the homeowner received the unlawful exemption.

To date, more than 6,300 cases have been investigated and more than $5-million has been returned to the county. A portion of the recovered revenue is returned to the city in which the homesteaded property is located, and a large amount is allocated back into the school system. We also refer some of the more fraudulent cases to the State Attorney's Office for further review.

I am proud to say that Pinellas was the first county in the state to establish a homestead fraud unit, and we have been a model other counties have emulated.

Jim Smith, Pinellas property appraiser, Clearwater

Court clerk is right to collect fines

Re: Is new bail law justice? Feb. 19.

I do feel sorry for the father, but why can't the son find a way to stay out of jail, get a job and pay back his father for the fees collected? In my opinion, the court clerk is doing what is right in collecting unpaid fines and fees due our county.

Am I to understand from this article that you feel it is okay for citizens who are arrested and charged with a crime to disregard the courts' judgments? If so, I guess we could raise our taxes so we could all help pay for those less fortunate. In your paper that would be the liberal way.

David Jones, St. Petersburg

Maybe he should stay in jail

Re: Is the new bail law justice?

At what point should I feel sorry for John Allan Strobridge in this story? Here's an idea. How about Strobridge repaying his father the $5,000 for the cost of the bail money? Why isn't someone in the family outraged at his conduct, or mention the victims of his previous offenses?

Maybe the community would be better served if Strobridge remained in jail. That way he won't be out committing more crimes.

Lori Lee, Brooksville

State-sanctioned theft

Re: Is new bail law justice?

Florida has only recently joined the parade of states that take cash bonds to pay the old fines and costs of current inmates.

Those states effectively steal the bond put up by some caring individual for the past fine and costs of an incarcerated individual.

The famous writer Elmore Leonard knew about this state-sanctioned theft about 10 years ago. In his book Rum Punch, which was later made into the terrific movie Jackie Brown, Ordell Robbie tells bondsman Max Cherry, "I need you to go the bond on Jackie. You know how they do. If I bond her then they'll keep the money for costs. But if a bondsman goes the bail, they won't."

Everybody's got their hand out, and Florida is no different. They won't try to steal from a bondsman because they will lose on appeal, and they know that.

Shane Hunter, St. Petersburg

Regurgitating baseless accusations

Re: Feeney faces more scrutiny, feb. 20.

As the paper with the widest circulation in the state, the St. Petersburg Times has a responsibility to provide its readers with accurate and timely information. Monday's story was neither.

The accusations contained were nothing but a regurgitation of old themes, comments and rubbish spewed forth by a phony "watchdog group" founded by a former staffer for liberal Michigan Democrat John Conyers and funded by major Democrat donors.

The facts are these: Jack Abramoff lied to everyone around him about his business dealings, including his law partners, his clients and Tom Feeney. Rep. Feeney is neither accused of doing anything illegal nor being investigated for any ethical impropriety. In fact, when he discovered discrepancies in the facts related to his trip to Scotland, it was he who contacted the Ethics Committee to notify them of the problems, not Melanie Sloan and her liberal friends.

Too bad the Times didn't decide to cover the story when it happened - a year ago - instead of needlessly regurgitating baseless accusations.

Jason C. Roe, chief of staff for Tom Feeney, member of Congress, 24th district, Florida

Democracy needs public discussion

Re: White House seeks retroactive approval for spying, Feb. 20.

This article quotes President Bush as saying in defense of his program to wiretap American citizens, "Unfortunately, we're having this discussion. It's too bad, because guess who listens to the discussion: the enemy."

Having open and public debate and discussion on all matters of public concern, regardless of who is listening, is the bedrock of our democracy. Trying to curtail public discussion on this issue diminishes our democracy at home, and demonstrates to the world that we are unfit to try to bring democracy elsewhere.

Oscar and Judy Kramer, Sun City Center

Putting president in his place

Re: Downplaying the president, letter, Feb. 22.

I want applaud the Times for not putting President Bush's totally choreographed photo-op on the front page. It is White House propaganda at its best. I personally have long tired of Bush and his sanitized audience throwing adulation at his feet as if he where the king of America.

Cristian Ripoll, St. Petersburg

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