Detectives target homestead exemption cheats

As eight local officials flanked Miami-Dade Property Appraiser Carlos Lopez-Cantera at a County Hall press conference Tuesday to spotlight greater efforts to crack down on homestead exemption fraud, 16 detectives deployed to the endeavor were huddled in training a few floors above.

Lopez-Cantera has elicited help from 10 cities and the school board to investigate homestead-exemption fraud. Speaking for TV cameras in English and Spanish, he explained that the goal is “to identify and combat homestead fraud at a greater rate than in the past.”

Among those on hand Tuesday to publicize the effort were Coral Gables Vice Mayor William H. Kerdyk Jr.; Miami Gardens Mayor Oliver Gilbert; Key Biscayne Vice Mayor Myra Lindsay; Sweetwater Mayor Manuel Maroño; and Pinecrest Vice Mayor Jeff Cutler.

Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado was also present and said, “Homestead fraud is really a problem in our city because so many people buy properties and then rent them out.” Also attending was Miami City Commissioner Francis Suarez, who is running for mayor and introduced a resolution to the city commission to pledge a city detective to the effort.

But the official with the biggest stake in the effort was Miami-Dade Public Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho: The school district gets one of every three dollars in property taxes in Miami-Dade.

Domino effect

Carvalho said a revenue shortfall that the school board faces this year can be blamed at least in part on tax cheats who claim improper homestead exemptions. “That means losses of jobs, losses of programs and maintenance that’s not done,” Carvalho said.

Starved for revenue, interest groups at the county and various cities have been pressing for tougher enforcement of homestead-exemption rules for some time in a bid to lift the tax coffers and save public jobs and programs. Lopez-Cantera, a former majority leader of the Florida house who took office as property appraiser in January, promised to step up investigations during his campaign for the elected post last year.

The Miami-Dade property appraiser has a backlog of about 2,900 leads and plans to assign cases to investigators now in training. Sixteen detectives are in a weeklong session to get up to speed on things like homestead exemption requirements, navigating databases to build cases and tactics for field inspections of residences under scrutiny. So far, five other officers are scheduled to join the effort.

“It’s not rocket science, but it’s a tedious and technical process,” said Lopez-Cantera.

Miami-Dade Major Ariel Artime, who heads the economic crimes bureau, has six detectives deployed to homestead fraud, and the property appraiser has seven employees handling fraud investigations, but Lopez-Cantera says more police muscle from other agencies will more than pay for itself in the revenue generated by the cases.

Other cities contributing an investigator to the effort include Hialeah, South Miami and West Miami. Lopez-Cantera said Miami Springs has committed to participate in the future.

Steep costs

Getting caught can be costly. Under state law, violators must pay up to 10 years in back taxes, plus a 50 percent penalty, plus 15 percent annual interest.

The difference in property tax on a home or condo with a homestead exemption and one without it can be huge. Homestead status shields $50,000 of a property’s value from taxation ($25,000 for school taxes), but the bigger tax break often comes from the Save Our Homes cap. Under Save Our Homes, a constitutional amendment that took effect in 1995, the assessed value of a homestead property can rise no more than 3 percent annually — no matter how much the market value rises.

Correction: A previous version of this article misstated William Kerdyk Jr.'s title. He is the vice mayor of Coral Gables.

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