Pedro J. Garcia, who became Miami-Dade’s first elected property appraiser four years ago in an upset victory, now finds himself in a similar spot, seeking reelection against a better-funded rival, state Rep. Carlos Lopez-Cantera.
The two men have engaged in a tough campaign for the appraiser’s job, a little-known position that gets scant public attention but has widespread impact. The appraiser’s office determines how much each of the county’s more than 890,000 properties, both commercial and residential, are worth.
The catalyst in the race: the parking garages at the Miami Marlins’ new ballpark.
Last year, Garcia informed the city of Miami that it might have to pay property taxes on the four ballpark garages, which the city allows the Marlins to use in their entirety for every home game and other special events. That’s a private use, Garcia contended, and state law only exempted governments from paying taxes on property used solely for a public purpose.
Cue Lopez-Cantera. From Tallahassee, the outgoing House majority leader and Miami-Dade legislative delegation chairman pulled strings to exempt the city from having to pay up to $1.2 million in annual property taxes — despite a Florida House analysis questioning whether the move would be constitutional.
After the annual legislative session ended, Lopez-Cantera announced he would challenge Garcia.
Up until then, the political future had been unclear for the term-limited Lopez-Cantera, who despite working in his family’s real-estate business says he had never considered running for appraiser before the garages question arose.
“People started approaching me saying, ‘You’re fixing this problem, but look at this one,’” he said, dismissing the suggestion that he’s seeking the post as an opportunist. “This is not a soft landing. This is not a natural political progression.... I know what I’m doing in this issue.”
Garcia, however, has tried to paint his rival as “a politician” and himself as “a professional.”
“It’s crazy this time,” Garcia said of the campaign. “I don’t consider myself a politician. At least to me — it’s not easy.”
A married father of four and grandfather of 13, Garcia, 74, sought the appraiser’s post in 2008 after spending 10 years as one of 20 or so magistrates on the county’s value adjustment board, which decides cases after people appeal their property-tax assessments.
Garcia, who was born in Cuba, said he was a University of Havana student during the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, helping the Cuban exiles. Working a radio from a tiny room in a building his father owned, Garcia said he was in constant contact with U.S. operatives in Key West — until he lost all communications, presumably after the operation failed.
He came to Miami in 1962 with a fake passport, he said, and spent six years with the U.S. Army infantry in Fort Knox, Ky., before returning to South Florida.
By 1970, Garcia was a real-estate agent, his lifelong profession. His company, Exclusive Realty Corp., remains active, though business has all but shut down since he was elected to the full-time appraiser’s post, defeating state Sen. Gwen Margolis, at the time a former lawmaker and county commissioner.
Lopez-Cantera, 38, Garcia’s only challenger, also has a background in real estate. He and his family run the Pan American companies, founded by Lopez-Cantera’s father and grandfather, which develop and manage commercial and industrial properties. He and his wife, who works in The Miami Herald’s circulation department, have a 4-year-old daughter.
Lopez-Cantera, whose father is Cuban-American, was born in Spain while his parents — who had traveled when his mother was seven months pregnant — were there on vacation. He graduated from Miami Dade College and the University of Miami and got bitten by the political bug early, volunteering for campaigns and working for a Florida Senate committee the summer after college.
He served on the county’s living-wage and planning advisory boards — and lost his first legislative election — before winning his seat, which stretches from Coconut Grove to east of Hialeah, in 2004.
In Tallahassee, he moved up the leadership ranks and passed legislation ranging from setting steep mortgage-fraud penalties to doubling the homestead exemption for seniors — to, in an ironic twist, requiring Miami-Dade to elect, rather than appoint, its property appraiser.
The property appraiser’s office oversees a 371-person office with an annual budget of more than $30 million. The job of the appraiser, whose compensation is about $169,000 a year, has been difficult in the economic slump, Garcia said; the county’s property-tax rolls lost $66 billion in value over the four years since he took office. This year, the rolls were valued at $190.7 billion.
Garcia said he’s proud of upgrading the appraiser’s website and establishing a fair appraisal process. He also said he’s lopped $2 million off his office’s budget each year, mostly by not filling vacant positions. The overall budget has increased, he said, to keep up with the number of property-tax assessment appeals.
Lopez-Cantera said the appraiser has not cut back enough compared to other county departments. And he criticized Garcia for not aggressively going after homestead-exemption fraud until the lead-up to the Aug. 14 election, and for inflating property values by not including most foreclosures and short sales in appraisals.
Garcia points to the $28.9 million in liens placed on homes this year because their owners filed illegal homestead exemptions. That’s about four times greater than last year. The liens shot up, Garcia said, thanks to a new software that flags potential fraud.
He added that his office does take into account “qualified” foreclosures — far fewer than the actual number of foreclosed properties — and that it is unfair for an entire block’s property values to drop because of a single vacant or deteriorated home.
“It’s falsely lowering the property values of neighboring homes,” he said.
Not so, countered Lopez-Cantera.
“If a foreclosure affects the market value of your house... it should also affect your taxable value,” he said.
If elected, Lopez-Cantera said he would investigate why Miami-Dade has more successful assessment appeals than other comparable counties in Florida — a possible indication, he said, that the initial appraisals are incorrect. In 2009, the value adjustment board granted 54 percent of its appeals, compared to 8 percent in Broward and 4 percent in Hillsborough. Garcia disputed Broward’s number.
Lopez-Cantera also said he would make the office more like Broward’s, with a more welcoming feel and better service, including tracking the duration and disposition of customer calls.
“I want to change the culture of the office,” he said.
Lopez-Cantera, who has the support of Miami auto magnate and civic activist Norman Braman, has raised twice as much in campaign contributions as Garcia. He also has a local electioneering communications organization, Citizens for Lower Property Taxes, which has helped fund favorable Lopez-Cantera advertisements on Spanish-language radio.
Garcia has also gone on radio, though he said that, unlike his opponent, he cannot afford ads on television.
Still, he said he’s confident of his reelection.
“I’m sure people recognize what I’ve done,” he said.