St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman knows firsthand the meaning of calamity. In 2008, a fire destroyed his home, killed pet Labradors Henry and Maggie and forced his family to move for nearly a year while they built a new house.
If similar misfortune befalls you, a little-known state law offers a way to take some of the sting away through property tax savings. That's what Kriseman and his wife, Kerry, have been able to do because of the so-called "calamity rule," which allows Floridians to rebuild after a disaster but keep their tax burden at the levels of their previous, less expensive home.
Relatively few Tampa Bay residents have benefitted from the law — originally intended to help Floridians whose homes were destroyed in the 2004 hurricanes — because the area has been lucky to avoid widespread natural disasters. But the calamity rule has also been used for fires, tornadoes and even the after-effects of poor construction.
The savings can be substantial.
Located in the popular Lake Pasadena area, Kriseman's seven-year-old house has a just market value of $427,391. Yet when the new property tax bills came out this month, his bill was $1,845.
That's hundreds of dollars less in property taxes than what former Mayor Bill Foster, City Council member Charles Gerdes and state Rep. Dwight Dudley are paying this year although their homes have much lower market values.
It is thousands of dollars less than what many other St. Petersburg residents are paying on homes worth about the same as the mayor's.
St. Petersburg homeowner Hank Hilton for example was surprised to learn that he is paying almost $2,400 more in property taxes this year than Kriseman on a house valued at $406,349.
"I could see maybe you get a break for one year but indefinitely?'' Hilton said. "To me, a major health problem could be a calamity.''
Kriseman said his comparatively low taxes helped reduce the traumatic effects of the fire.
"We were happy there was something in (the law) so we were not going to be penalized by the catastrophe that happened,'' he said. "You're already sad enough losing most of your possessions, we lost two of our dogs, and that would have been piling on.''
The taxable value of a Florida residence with a homestead exemption is determined by these factors: the original "just'' or market value of the property when the owner first claims homestead; and the cap on annual increases in value, minus exemptions the owner receives. Florida's Save Our Homes Amendment caps increases in assessed value to no more than 3 percent a year.
In 2004, Hurricanes Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne destroyed more than 12,000 Florida homes, many of them older homes with relatively low assessments and taxable values. Concern arose that storm victims replacing their homes with new ones built to tougher construction standards might be socked with property tax bills they couldn't afford.
In 2005, the law was changed to help those and other homeowners who suffered calamities. Future Save Our Homes increases would be based on the pre-calamity value of the house, not the value of the new construction as long as it did not exceed 110 percent of the original square footage.
In the Krisemans' case, that has made a big difference.
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Records show the Krisemans bought their house in 1994 for $88,000. By the time an electrical spark started the 2008 fire, the assessed value had risen to only $113,612 because the Lake Pasadena area was not yet as popular as it is today. Even though the Krisemans built a new home, Save Our Homes increases have been based on the $113,612 amount. Thanks to the 3 percent annual cap, the assessed value this year is just $127,944.
Meanwhile, the market for homes in Lake Pasadena has blossomed as prices near downtown St. Petersburg soar. If the Krisemans wanted to sell today — which they don't — they might get $532,300 based on comparable recent sales, according to the Pinellas County Property Appraiser's Office.
"We still love the neighborhood,'' Kriseman said. "We have brick streets, people walk around the two lakes, it's very convenient. I can be downtown in seven to eight minutes, I can be at the beach, there are a lot of amenities nearby.''
Kriseman said he doubts that many Tampa Bay homeowners are aware of the calamity rule, just as "most people have no idea of a lot of things until they've been a victim of whatever it is.''
Indeed, the calamity rule has been used sparingly in the bay area.
"We've used it sporadically for fire damage and that's really been it,'' said Wade Barber, Pasco County's chief deputy property appraiser. "Sinkholes have not been an issue because most of the time the house is gone and doesn't get rebuilt.''
In a typical year in Hillsborough County, just 80 to 100 homeowners qualify for the tax break due to calamities, said Tim Wilmath, director of valuation for the Property Appraiser's Office. The numbers in Hernando and Pinellas numbers are modest, too.
"We've been lucky,'' Pinellas Property Appraiser Pam Dubov said. "There were counties that had to apply the rule to tens of thousand of properties. We have really avoided that kind of calamity.''
On a much smaller scale, Dubov has given tax breaks to homesteaded owners in Signature Place, the St. Petersburg condo tower undergoing major repairs because of construction and design flaws. Though not a calamity in the usual sense, the problems have depressed the value of Signature Place units in an otherwise torrid downtown condo market.
With new property tax bills now out, Dubov is again fielding questions about why people pay vastly different amounts in taxes for very similar properties. That is one of the downsides of the Save Our Homes Amendment, she said — many buyers don't understand that the cap comes off when the property is sold.
Among the upsides is that the amendment, which took effect in 1995, helped hold down tax increases during the boom years.
"It causes inequities,'' she said, "but I believe with my whole heart that the Save Our Homes cap enabled thousands and thousands of lower-income residents to stay in modest homes when the market was red hot.''
Contact Susan Taylor Martin at email@example.com or (727) 893-8642. Follow @susanskate