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Cost of sinkhole stigma in Hernando County is no joke

Published Feb. 15, 2012

For a while, it seemed, the list was complete. We thought we knew all the villains in those two big, life-altering crashes in property values and property tax revenues:

Bankers and speculators who fed the boom that led to the bust, politicians afraid to ask tax-averse voters to pay their fair share, activists who whipped up this antitax fever.

Now, it's clear, we've got some additions to the list, a lot of them in fact: the 3,806 homeowners who have reported sinkhole damage to the county Property Appraiser's Office.

They have helped make Hernando County the sinkhole claims capital of Florida and, more to the point, are expected to cost the county about $1.1 million in lost general fund tax revenue next year.

Not all of these homeowners did wrong, of course.

About 40 percent of the owners reporting damage have used insurance payouts to make repairs as common decency — though not, until last year, state law — requires.

And when interviewing homeowners for a recent story on the explosion of sinkhole claims, Times staff writer Susan Taylor Martin and I found that some people who had not made repairs were still fighting in court for insurance settlements or arranging for work to be done.

(We also found other homeowners who hadn't reported sinkhole damage to the appraiser's office or any other public agency, which means the total number of sinkhole homes is even larger than reported and that buyers potentially could get stuck with one of them without knowing it.)

Also, most of the homeowners at least seemed to think their sinkhole claims were legitimate.

But we also interviewed a few homeowners like John Backer, who won't be making any repairs with the $260,000 he received from his insurer, Liberty Mutual, because, he said, his home didn't have real sinkhole damage — just "normal cracks."

Far from being embarrassed, Backer, a retired municipal worker from New York City, seemed proud that in this market he had figured out a way to recover the investment he'd made in his Pristine Place home.

"It can fall in the ground for all I care," he said, before adding a sentiment that at that point had become obvious:

"I don't give a s---."

People haven't talked much about the high public cost of sinkhole claims until recently because for a long time it didn't amount to much.

The appraiser's office cuts the value of unrepaired sinkhole homes by 50 percent and repaired ones by 10 percent.

As recently as 2005, the total loss in appraised value came to $7.8 million. Now, that figure is more like $130 million. Add in schools and every other property tax, and that means a total revenue loss of about $2 million.

That's a lot of money in a county that spends slightly more than $500,000 on code enforcement, and less than a million dollars of its own money running libraries.

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And the losses don't include the impact of falling home prices in sinkhole claim hotbeds such as Pristine Place and the stigma all these claims might bring to the county as a whole.

It's enough to, in polite terms, give a darn about. And because people like Backer don't seem to face any other consequences, the least we can do is add them to the list.

Up next:The skinny

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