TAMPA — Bob Henriquez and D.C. Goutoufas are old Tampa. Both men have roots in the city stretching back a half-dozen generations or more.
But those bloodlines haven’t stopped the Hillsborough County Property Appraiser’s race from turning nasty in recent weeks.
Henriquez, 56, the Democratic incumbent in a county rapidly turning blue, is a popular figure, a former Princeton football player who coached Tampa Catholic for nearly 20 years before he was elected appraiser in 2012. On the ballot, he uses “Coach” in his name.
Henriquez touts his office’s efficiency and fairness and “by-the-book” practices, which is why, he said, Goutoufas’ recent attacks that he plays favorites rankles. As does Henriquez’s pandemic-related limitations on countering Goutoufas’ charges: Political forums are mostly on Zoom and opportunities for retail politics scarce.
Here is the skinny:
Goutoufas, 52, says Henriquez is giving a property appraiser’s office employee an unfair break on the assessment of his home.
Henriquez scoffs at the charges, saying the exemption is related to sinkhole activity on the property and was in place before he took office in 2013.
“It’s a public record,” Henriquez said. “These are baseless charges.”
Goutoufas’ campaign questions if that same exemption applies to other county residents whose properties are affected by sinkholes.
Another charge being levied by Goutoufas, a Republican, involves property tax exemptions that Henriquez didn’t grant, namely to private businesses leasing property from Port Tampa Bay and Hillsborough County Aviation Authority.
Under Florida law, only private firms that perform essential government uses are eligible for the tax break, said Will Shepherd, general counsel for the appraiser’s office.
Currently, Gulf Marine Repair, a Port leasee, and the Aviation Authority are in litigation with the appraiser’s office, saying they should qualify for the exemptions.
That is a sign that Henriquez is doing something wrong, said Goutoufas. He’s running to restore fairness and integrity to the countywide constitutional office, which decides what each commercial, residential or agricultural property is worth.
“Treat everybody the same,” he said.
Henriquez said that attitude betrays his opponent’s inexperience and lack of knowledge about the powers of the appraiser.
“It’s not an issue of favoritism. It’s the law,” Henriquez said.
Goutoufas, a South Tampa native who owns a cigar shop and lawn care business, is hearing disabled, although a cochlear implant a few years ago enables him to hear and communicate.
His disability has made campaigning difficult, especially during a pandemic. He often asks people to remove their masks when he meets them in person, as long as it’s safe and everyone is socially distanced.
If he wins, his campaign says he would likely be the first hearing-impaired county elected official. Asked about his plans to conduct official business, Goutoufas compared it to diplomacy. The French ambassador, he said, often has a translator along to help. That’s what he would do, Goutoufas said.
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Goutoufas ran unsuccessfully for City Council twice in the 1990s. He also has been a downtown branch manager for Bank of America.
Henriquez is married with three children. He has previous experience as a county and state official before becoming the appraiser. He served as a state representative from Tampa between 1998 and 2006, leaving because of term limits.
If he wins, Henriquez said he hopes to continue to modernize the office and has hopes that a coronavirus fact-finding group he formed will help him push property tax relief, at least in property valuation. Possible asks of the state Legislature when it next meets are delaying assessment deadlines, changing the date of the next assessment (which is done yearly) and possibly rebating some money to property owners.
As a certified appraiser and the head of the office which has received awards for its performance, Henriquez said he’s well-positioned to make those arguments to state lawmakers. He is the legislative chair of the state property appraiser’s association.
Goutoufas thinks that experience hasn’t delivered a fair deal to Hillsborough property owners.
“The people need someone who is there for them," he said.
Through last week, Henriquez has dominated the fundraising. His $110,000 in contributions are more than triple Goutoufas’ total. Both have meager piles of cash-on-hand, according to the latest fundraising reports from the county supervisor of elections office.
Henriquez is taking nothing for granted in a race many political insiders think is his to lose. That’s dangerous thinking and has been an impediment to his campaign, Henriquez said.
“There is nothing normal about 2020, so you don’t get to take anything for granted,” Henriquez said. “There are a lot of unknowns. And there are folks who want to ‘throw them all out.’”