Already the focus of intense scrutiny by lawmakers and elder advocates, Florida’s troubled assisted-living industry has taken another hit: Miami-Dade’s new property appraiser has accused scores of the homes’ owners of gaining improper homestead exemptions that could cost taxpayers millions of dollars.
This month, the Miami-Dade Property Appraisers’ Office issued $1.7 million in tax liens against assisted-living facilities that claimed homestead exemptions — resulting in a discount on their property taxes — to which they were not entitled, the office said. Under Florida law, an ALF owner must live on the property in order to qualify for a homestead exemption — which lowers the tax burden only for the portion of the facility in which the owner lives, not for any part of the home that generates income.
Of close to 200 homes that were cited by the department, 98 were ALFs or other group homes where the owner did not live on-site — meaning they were not eligible for any tax relief.
Carlos Lopez-Cantera, Miami-Dade’s property appraiser, said he came up with the idea of comparing homesteaded properties against ALFs licensed by the state after receiving many complaints about the homes from constituents while he was representing Miami in the state House of Representatives. To test his theory, the office looked at a handful of the properties, and, Lopez-Cantera said, found that a large number of them were homesteaded — meaning the homeowners were asserting that the properties were their place of residence. Instead, they were licensed by the state to provide care to frail elders and disabled people.
“When someone receives an exemption they are not entitled to, it increases the burden on all other property owners,” Lopez-Cantera said. “While these facilities provide important services, they cannot be allowed to ignore the law to the detriment of others.”
Lopez-Cantera said his office continues to examine the tax records of county ALFs, and expects to find other homes that are evading their tax obligations . Miami-Dade has more licensed ALFs, by far — 998 — than any other county in the state. The state licenses 3,044 ALFs, with 70,719 beds, overall.
Under Florida law, violations of the homestead statute are assessed back taxes with a 50 percent penalty and 15 percent interest. Lopez-Cantera said his office also referred the ALFs on his list to the Miami-Dade state attorney’s office, but added prosecutions are unlikely because the tax-avoidance was only a misdemeanor.
Among the ALFs caught obtaining improper exemptions: Intraqual Premier ALF, a Miami Gardens home that was run by a woman on house arrest after being charged with bilking Miami’s cash-strapped public hospital out of more than $83,000 by creating “ghost employees” and then paying them with taxpayer money.
The state Agency for Health Care Administration yanked Intraqual’s license in January. In an administrative complaint filed in November, healthcare administrators said owner Tiffany Gordon violated state law by running the home while awaiting trial on fraud charges.
Last September, Gordon was charged with fleecing the struggling public hospital by hiring two pals and paying them $49,301 and $34,323, mostly to do nothing. The case remains open, and Gordon pleaded not guilty, though court records say she is scheduled to enter a new plea.