Cheating on your homestead exemption in Escambia County? Forgot to remove a homestead exemption that’s no longer valid? Escambia County Property Appraiser Chris Jones is looking to track you down and collect taxes reaching back up to a decade.
Jones has hired Louisiana-based Assessure Systems to comb through the tax rolls in Escambia County, using high-tech tools to track down invalid exemptions and collect what is rightfully due…plus penalties and interest. The program will begin with an audit of properties worth $100,000 or more.
“I have alway aggressively gone after homestead fraud,” he said. “It’s stealing from taxpayers, taking money out of our schools, projects and local coffers.”
Using two investigators and a floater, Escambia County’s local efforts currently uncover up to about a half million dollars per year revenue from fraudulent homestead exemptions, Jones said. With Assessure Systems, he expects that amount to easily double. Currently, about 40 percent of taxpayers identified with an invalid exemption come in and pay, while 60 percent move on to the lien process.
Once it is determined a homestead exemption is not valid, the tax appraiser can collect unpaid taxes from up to 10 years ago, plus a penalty of 50% of the unpaid taxes for each year, plus 15% annual interest. Assessure Systems will receive 28% of the collected tax amount. They receive the 28% at the time of the lien satisfaction and will have mp claim on future revenues. The taxing authority will receive the remaining taxes, along with the penalties and interest.
Once a homestead exemption is identified by Assessure as a potential violation, the process moves to the Property Appraiser’s Office. The owner will receive a 30 days notice by certified mail to explain why exemption is valid. If not, the clock starts ticking on 30 days to pay before a lien is filed. All correspondence will be signed and mailed locally by Jones’ office. The property appraiser has 100% control of the final determination of an invalid exemption.
“It’s not just Assessure making determinations,” Jones said. “Think of it as leads that we are still going to go through and vet.”
There are 163,696 real estate parcels in Escambia County. Of those, there are 70,708 homesteaded properties and 1,559 homesteaded condo units.
The property appraiser believes a higher rate of homestead exemption fraud may exist with condominiums on Escambia County’s beaches where individuals from out of town establish a Florida residence to avoid income taxes in other states.
“I’m going to go after the taxes locally on that doctor or lawyer or whoever is intentionally defrauding, and I’m going to turn them in to Ohio or wherever they are from,” Jones said. “I might deny it for a year, but I’m probably not to prosecute in a case where grandma died and it’s still in her name. I might just deny it for a year while they get everything right.”
Assessure Systems has already completed a sample audit as a test on 1,000 account submitted by the Escambia County Tax Collector. There were 44, or 4.4%, returned as suspect and 12, or 1.2%, were found to be in violation.
Escambia County, the Escambia County School Board and the Town of Century have signed memorandums of understanding with the Property Appraiser’s Office agreeing to give up the 28% fee. The City of Pensacola will likely consider their MOU this week, and the Northwest Florida Water Management District will soon vote. The program will begin when all of the taxing authorities have signed on.
In the state of Florida, a $25,000 exemption is applied to the first $50,000 of your property’s assessed value if your property is your permanent residence and you owned the property on January 1 of the tax year. This exemption applies to all taxes, including school district taxes. An additional exemption of up to $25,000 will be applied if your property’s assessed value is between at least $50,000 and $75,000. This exemption is not applied to school district taxes.
Assessure was founded 10 years ago, has a documented successful track record and is being used by nine other Florida counties. The company has several ad valorem tax related patents pending for scoring algorithms, artificial intelligence and machine learning to audit and entire tax roll in the fraction of time compared to local staff, with a substantial increase in accuracy and returns.