Miami-Dade County commissioners are scheduled to vote Tuesday on a proposed ballot question that appeared on the verge of being scrapped entirely a few days ago after the board chairwoman made it clear that she dislikes the measure.
Commissioner Esteban “Steve” Bovo said Monday that he still intends to seek commission approval for his proposal to ask voters in November to clarify the powers of the elected property appraiser.
His decision marked a change of heart from last week, when Bovo told Chairwoman Rebeca Sosa that he might withdraw the item from consideration altogether.
“She had some reservations, and I understand her concerns,” Bovo told the Miami Herald. “We considered withdrawing the item, deferring the item. But then over the weekend, thinking about it more — the time expended, the money expended — we thought, let’s just move it forward.
“If it gets voted down, then so be it.”
The ballot question, if approved Tuesday, would go to voters on the Nov. 4 election. It would ask if the appraiser should fall under county authority — essentially as an elected department head, as it is now — or be more independent under the Florida Constitution.
Bovo’s item easily passed a commission committee in March, and received little interest in six public hearings held around the county. One of the evening meetings had zero attendance. The best-attended had eight people show up.
But a meeting last Wednesday between Bovo and Sosa, which was tape-recorded as required by Florida’s “government in the sunshine” laws, revealed deeper misgivings from Sosa than just over wording.
“A department that has to play such an important role in our decisions, in our property taxes — I get scared,” she said at the time. “Why fix something that is not broken?”
Except some would argue it is broken, or at least malfunctioning, Bovo said. Before he was appointed lieutenant governor in January, Carlos Lopez-Cantera, the former property appraiser, butted heads with the county over his office powers, particularly over labor matters. Most property appraiser employees belong to unions whose collective-bargaining agreements apply countywide.
Lopez-Cantera even asked a judge to weigh in on his authority, but Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Jose M. Rodriguez, months later, has yet to rule.
Lopez-Cantera’s successor, acting Property Appraiser Lazaro Solis, said he thinks voters expected the office to be more independent than it is. The property appraiser has some discretion to enter into contracts without commission approval or competitive bidding, but its financial accounts are handled by the county administration.
“It has caused some confusion with the public,” Solis said. “I believe that most of the people think it’s independent. Because it’s not operating independently, then shouldn’t the people decide?”
Mayor Carlos Gimenez said Monday he is fine with asking voters to take up the issue.
At the heart of the matter is a lingering worry that county administrators could try to influence the appraiser’s property assessments. Property taxes are the primary source of revenue for the county budget.
Solis noted that the county auditor has recently asked to audit the property appraiser’s assessments. In the past, the auditor has only reviewed matters of procedure because the auditor’s office doesn’t have any appraisers of its own on staff qualified to evaluate assessments, Solis said.
“There’s a question of whether the county should be doing that, and if that is somehow influencing the appraiser’s outcome,” Solis told the Herald. The Florida Department of Revenue, which oversees property appraisers, reviews Miami-Dade’s tax roll every year and conducts an in-depth audit every other year, according to Solis.
Miami-Dade is among the three of Florida’s 67 counties that does not consider the property appraiser a constitutional officer. As such, the Miami-Dade property appraiser is governed by the county’s home-rule charter and, unlike constitutional officers, subject to recall by voters.
That’s key for Sosa. She told Bovo that, six years ago, it was clear to her and other commissioners — and to the voters — that the property appraiser would become an elected position but not a completely independent constitutional officer. Under either arrangement, the appraiser’s annual budget would require commission approval.