For years — decades, really — Miami-Dade homeowners have been ducking property taxes by illegally claiming homestead exemptions, usually with impunity.
There are people like Joseph and Sheron Barnes, who according to county records rented out a house at 1132 NE 84th Street and listed it as their permanent residence.
And there are others like the heirs of Willadean Allen, who records say left the lucrative homestead status on her home at 8605 SW 56th St. for 17 years after she died, chalking up tax savings year after year.
Still others double dipped, like Maria Eugenia Escagedo, also known as Maria Fleites, who records show claimed homestead on 13180 Old Cutler Rd. and on a second home, too.
But these days, gambling on getting caught is a fool’s game.
Homestead-exemption deceit has erupted into a red-hot issue in Miami-Dade and a crackdown is under way with all indications that it will only get tougher for tax cheats to elude detection.
The price of getting caught: Up to 10 years of unpaid back taxes, plus a 50 percent penalty and 15 percent annual interest. The biggest tab this year: $403,329.70 on the Barneses’ property.
Since January, six detectives from the Economic Crimes Bureau of the Miami-Dade Police Department have been working to bolster the muscle of 15 investigators at the Property Appraiser’s Office in nailing violators. That is up from two police detectives deployed in 2011 to tackle a backlog of some 3,500 complaints (now about 2,166) which typically come from tips from neighbors, estranged spouses and others.
This May, Property Appraiser Pedro J. Garcia unveiled a new contract for software and services to flag suspicious claims among the 440,000 homestead properties.
For July alone, the property appraiser, armed with smarter tools, filed $11 million in homestead liens. That compares with $8 million filed for all of 2011.
Fueling the intensified scrutiny: money, of course.
Starved for revenue, interest groups at the county, the school district and cities are clamoring for tougher enforcement of homestead- exemption rules in hope of bringing in revenue to help save public jobs and programs threatened by the budget ax.
At the same time, the new use of data-mining tools to cross-check property records against an array of data from deaths to marriages to voter registrations to auto tags to water bills holds the promise of weeding out suspect exemptions in bulk, generating more and better leads than the hotlines and anonymous tips that have spawned many cases in the past.
The property appraiser’s fledgling foray into high-tech sleuthing came after a retired police major who ran the Economic Crimes Bureau, Jim DiBernardo, began pushing last fall for the county to get proactive against what he asserts are widespread violations costing perhaps hundreds of millions of dollars in lost tax revenue.
In September 2011, the Dade Police Benevolent Association, facing major concessions, trumpeted the need to get tough on tax cheats. The Property Appraiser’s Office disputes the estimates as inflated and said it was exploring data technology before homestead fraud became a hot public issue.
Add to the mix a fiercely contested political race for the office of property appraiser.
Carlos Lopez-Cantera, the 38-year-old majority leader of the Florida House who is at his term limit, is vying to oust Garcia, 74, from the $169,000 a year post in the August 14 election. Lopez-Cantera has painted the incumbent as slow to act on homestead fraud and is pledging to root out violations with proactive tactics such as engaging the cooperation of Realtors and utility companies.