Commissioner proposes ballot question to clarify Miami-Dade property appraiser’s powers

03/10/2014 12:27 PM

03/10/2014 6:04 PM

A Miami-Dade County commissioner wants to find out what voters really meant when they decided six years ago to make the property appraiser an elected position.

Did voters intend for the appraiser to be a department head still reporting to Miami-Dade administrators? Or were they keen on making the job almost completely independent of County Hall?

To find out, Commissioner Esteban “Steve” Bovo has suggested putting a question on the November ballot that asks voters for clarification.

“When I voted on the item, that’s what I thought I was voting for — a completely independent person — and clearly, it wasn’t,” Bovo said. “It’s been sticking out there as something that I think should be resolved one way or another.”

His proposed referendum would ask whether the property appraiser’s office should be removed from the authority of the Miami-Dade home-rule charter and the county code and operated instead under the Florida Constitution, making it independent of county government.

The question would go on the Nov. 4 general election ballot, but any change to the office would not take effect until Jan. 1, 2017 — after the 2016 property appraiser election.

A committee of five commissioners is scheduled to give preliminary consideration to Bovo’s proposal on Thursday.

Miami-Dade was the last of Florida’s 67 counties to make the property appraiser an elected position. It is also one of three counties that does not consider the appraiser a constitutional officer.

For Bovo, the distinction matters because the more independent the appraiser, the less opportunity for administrators to pressure the office to increase property assessments — and bring more tax money to Miami-Dade’s coffers.

Before the position was elected, “I remember a lot of the inside government talk was that whenever the county budget needed more money, the manager would turn to the property appraiser,” Bovo said.

Last year, Bovo supported then-Property Appraiser Carlos Lopez-Cantera when he asked a judge in August to rule on his office’s powers. Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Jose M. Rodriguez has yet to rule.

Lopez-Cantera had to hire an outside attorney to represent him. The county attorney had a conflict of interest because he also represents the mayor and commission.

The county has asked the court to dismiss Lopez-Cantera’s request for declaratory judgment, saying it is moot now that Lopez-Cantera has been appointed Florida’s lieutenant governor — and his successor, Lazaro Solis, became the acting property appraiser following the very code provision that Lopez-Cantera had called into question.

Solis, who had been Lopez-Cantera’s deputy, took over the job until the Aug. 26 countywide election, when voters will pick a candidate to fill the remainder of Lopez-Cantera’s term. Two candidates, former appraiser Pedro Garcia and pharmaceutical salesman Alex Dominguez, have filed to run.

Solis said he is considering joining the race, but has not made up his mind. He called Bovo’s proposal a good idea.

“Almost from day one, people have questioned just how independent the property appraiser is,” he said.

In his lawsuit, Lopez-Cantera argued that when voters in 2008 said they wanted to make the property appraiser “elected and subject to recall by the voters” rather than “appointed and supervised” by the mayor, they intended for the office to be independent.

But later in 2008, a judge ruled that the property appraiser was a local — not constitutional — office under Miami-Dade’s home-rule charter, essentially making the post an elected department head.

As such, the property appraiser is bound by the county’s collective-bargaining agreements, and his expenditures must be approved by the Miami-Dade finance department. The office does have more power than other departments in some areas, such as the authority to enter into certain contracts without the commission’s approval or competitive bidding.

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