Carlos Lopez-Cantera, the popular state House Republican leader who pulled strings in Tallahassee to save the city of Miami from a $1.2 million tax burden on parking garages at the new Miami Marlins ballpark, defeated Pedro J. Garcia Tuesday night to become Miami-Dades second elected property appraiser.
Lopez-Cantera, 38, pushed to victory by repeatedly bashing Garcia for not including foreclosures in the countys massive $200 billion property tax roll, and for years of neglect in chasing down homestead-exemption fraud.
Reached by phone just before his victory party at the Doubletree Hotel near Miami International Airport Tuesday night, Lopez-Cantera congratulated Garcia for running a great campaign, then promised to be more inclusive and make his office and website friendlier to Dade residents hungering for property tax information.
I think we were successful because of our message, Lopez-Cantera said. Were going to change the culture of the department, and were going to hold everyone accountable. One of the goals is to reduce the number of appeals for 2013.
Garcia, who with the support of powerful county commissioners became the first elected appraiser in Miami-Dade in 2008, said it was time to settle down, spend some time with family, and take his fishing vessel on the lengthy trips hes been ignoring for the past four years. A career real estate broker, Garcia worked his way to become a county magistrate before his 2008 election.
On Tuesday, family members hovered over a small laptop as early returns showed Garcia was behind. The mood in the Casa Marin restaurant where they had gathered was tense. Young children were biting their nails and covering their eyes.
Relax, said Garcia as he entered the room. Im not nervous.
As the night drew to a close, Garcia said he was concerned about possible absentee-ballot problems affecting his race. Garcia was ahead among voters who cast ballots early and on Election Day, but was significantly behind in the absentee-ballot count.
Absentees hurt us hard. But something strange is going on. With all the ballot brokers that were arrested, its credible that if I lose, this [stems] from that, Garcia said.
The Miami-Dade appraisers office is a large agency of 371 staffers with a yearly budget hovering near $30 million. It oversees the countys property-tax roll, and takes up almost two entire floors at County Hall. Lopez-Cantera will earn $169,000 a year.
The new appraisers background is solidly in real estate. His family still runs the Pan American Companies, created by his grandfather, along with a firm that develops and manages commercial and industrial properties. The University of Miami graduate has served on the countys living-wage and planning advisory boards.
Term-limited in the Legislature, Lopez-Cantera won his first seat in 2004 and has been instrumental in setting steep mortgage-fraud penalties and doubling the homestead exemption for seniors.
One key issue the new appraiser is sure to tackle: Why the success rate of property tax appeals is so disproportionately high in Miami-Dade.
You can fix the appeal process by sharing information [with the public] sooner, he said. If its a valid case, well adjust it.
Many voters showed up at the polls Tuesday saying they had no clue who to vote for or who was even running in the low profile property appraisers race. Most said they showed up to vote for the mayor or their county commissioner.
Miami Herald staff writers Anna Edgerton and Monique O. Madan contributed to this story.