When the politically ascendant Carlos López-Cantera resigned in January as Miami-Dade Property Appraiser to be named Florida’s lieutenant governor a year into his four-year term, the surprise opening drew a crowd of hopefuls for the powerful county post.
The five candidates competing for the $168,000-a-year elected position include a previous officeholder and two other professional appraisers; a Hialeah career politician who faces term limits as a state representative; and a pharmaceutical executive/real estate agent.
The non-partisan office is responsible for setting the taxable value for nearly a million parcels of residential and commercial property in Miami-Dade — done mostly through a complex process of mass appraisal — and for certifying the tax roll for cities and other taxing authorities. The property appraiser runs a $33.7-million annual budget with more than 360 employees.
A huge volume of tax appeals at the Value Adjustment Board, a separate county entity, and the high rate of success by property owners have raised questions about the accuracy of appraisals. (Facing a big case backlog, the VAB just began hearing appeals for 2013 tax year in June after finishing 2012 appeals in May. About 45 percent of the appeals have resulted in assessment reductions.)
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When the opening for the property appraiser’s office emerged, former Miami-Dade property appraiser Pedro J. Garcia, 76, who narrowly lost the August 2012 election to López-Cantera, wasted no time. He filed paperwork to run for his old office just a week after his nemesis was tapped by Gov. Rick Scott.
The field includes Alex Dominguez, 44, a Teva Pharmaceuticals executive and realty agent who lost two other recent bids for elected office. Dominguez, who grew up in Miami, threw his hat in the ring the same day as Garcia. They were followed in March by Albert Armada, 63, and Carlos Gobel, 36, both experienced appraisers who are running on their expertise.
With wide name recognition in Miami-Dade and plenty of contributions flowing into his campaign coffers, Garcia looked like the guy to beat in the Aug. 26 election.
Then the dynamics of the race were upended May 20 when state Rep. Eduardo “Eddy” González, facing term limits in the Legislature, jumped into the heap.
González, a Hialeah Republican, has the powerful Hialeah political machine behind him and a well-oiled drive to reach absentee voters.
Despite entering the race last, González has amassed a campaign warchest of more than $227,000 — more than twice as much money as Garcia, and in fact, more than the other four candidates combined. That includes nearly $116,000 carried over from fundraising for a 2015 Hialeah City Council race González dropped in favor of the property appraiser’s seat.
“I don’t stop. I’m averaging three or four hours sleep a night,” said González, who is business development leader at CAC-Florida Medical Centers, an HMO.
“He’s got pretty much the four corners of the county covered,” said David Custin, a political consultant for González’s campaign.
With two terms in the Florida Legislature, González, 44, is drawing financial backing from diverse sources, ranging from a New York nursing home company to a variety of political action committees, and from lots of supporters in Hialeah. González has been chairman of the Dade Delegation for two years. In 2013, González was a main backer of a house bill to provide taxpayer support for upgrades to Sun Life Stadium for the Miami Dolphins, but the bill was killed without a vote.
Rep. González’s foray into the race is a bit of déjà vu for Garcia, who became Miami-Dade’s first elected property appraiser in 2008 when he beat state Sen. Gwen Margolis in a runoff.
When Garcia sought re-election in 2012, López-Cantera, a former House Majority leader in the Florida legislature who similarly faced term limits, brought a message of change along with statewide credentials and strong political organization, particularly with absentee ballots. Like González, Lopez-Cantera similarly had superior funding than Garcia.
López-Cantera ended up with 51 percent of the vote to Garcia’s 49 percent, solely because of a better showing among absentee voters; the incumbent Garcia got more votes on election day and in early voting.
González has a strong track record in garnering absentee votes. In a low-turnout race, that’s crucial. In the August 2012 primary for his legislative seat, González received 2,874 votes by absentee ballot, more than the 2,126 votes he got on election day and the 460 from early voting combined. He beat his opponent, Maykel “Miguel” Balboa, with 62 percent of the vote to 38 percent.
González says he wants to build on the customer-friendly changes López-Cantera initiated during his brief tenure at the property appraiser’s office and he promises an open door to residents. “I think this office needs to be revamped. It’s broken,” González said. “It needs to come down to the people, to be accessible.”
Garcia, who owns Exclusive Realty Corp., has raised $95,450 in campaign funds according to the latest filing, including solid contributions from the property tax appeal consultants and attorneys who make a living challenging valuations on behalf of residential and commercial property owners.
Garcia says during his 2009-2012 tenure he worked to “establish the right and fair value” for property and launched a crackdown on homestead fraud. He wants to return, he said, because “I didn’t finish my job.”
To be sure, Armada, Dominguez and Gobel aren’t to be dismissed in the race; they’re simply fighting an uphill battle to make it to a run-off, which seems probable given the five-man race.
Dominguez, who like González has no experience in property appraisal, asserts his business savvy is more important than professional appraiser experience. “Lopez-Cantera did a pretty good job and he wasn’t an appraiser,” said Dominguez, who has been funding most of his campaign himself. Dominguez had raised $55,285, according to the most recent filings.
Dominguez has been especially outspoken about the need to correct the appraisal process to cut back on the huge volume of appeals filed — and won — by property owners.
The race marks Dominguez’s third bid for elected office. He was defeated last year in a bid for the Miami City Commission and lost a primary for state representative in 2012. He says he’s gotten some flack for running for various posts, but responds that it often takes several efforts for a new face in politics to prevail.
Gobel, 36, has never run for elected office before and says he has no intention of running for any other elected office.
The professional appraiser, whose firm is GRE Group Inc., has served as a special magistrate hearing appeals for the Value Adjustment Board in Broward County.
Gobel has been relying heavily on volunteers, friends and family to get out the word through a door-to-door campaign, phone banks, and fliers. He has raised $23,355 in campaign funds according to the most recent filing and thus lacks the financial muscle of several other contenders.
“I’m not a career politician,” Gobel said. “I just want to be property appraiser for as long as it takes to address the issues that have plagued the property appraiser’s office.”
Citing the high number of successful appeals to the VAB, he said: “Either properties are not being assessed properly or the property appraiser’s office is not effective in presenting that they are correct valuations.” Either way, the problem should be fixed, he said.
Armada, a veteran appraiser and president of Armada Appraisal Co., also has served as a special magistrate hearing appeals for the Value Adjustment Board in Miami-Dade.
Armada says his campaign hinges on friends and family working the phones and knocking on doors to tout him as a skilled professional. “I am absolutely not a politician. This position is an extremely technical position,” said Armada, who worked years back as City of Miami’s property and lease manager. “It should not be open to just anyone who’s run for other positions and just decided to run for it.”
Armada had raised $19,230 as of the latest filing. “My real platform is my credentials,” said Armada, whose family left Cuba for Miami when he was 9. He argues that the high number of successful appeals in the Value Adjustment Board signals an underlying problem with property valuation in Miami-Dade. “The vast majority of assessments are incorrect,” Armada said, pledging to ferret out the root of the problem and fix it. “Look at the number of appeals we have.”
As the candidates tout themselves in a series of debates, another key question has been whether it’s important to make the property appraiser a constitutional office, independent of the County Commission and the mayor, as it is in most Florida counties.
Dominguez, Gobel and González favor pushing to make the property appraiser a constitutional office, not beholden to other county officials. “The taxpayers need to be sure the property appraiser is not being unduly influenced to artificially raise assessments,” Gobel said.
Armada and Garcia say that isn’t necessary. “When I was property appraiser, I didn’t feel any pressure at all from the mayor or the commission,” Garcia said.
The issue erupted when López-Cantera was in office. In August 2013, Lopez-Cantera filed suit in Miami-Dade Circuit Court seeking clarification on whether he was a constitutional officer or, as the county attorney concluded, essentially an elected department head. Soon after Lazaro Solis, a career county administrator, was named property appraiser to fill López-Cantera’s spot until an election, he dropped the suit.
If no candidate gets more than 50 percent during the election, the top two vote-getters will face off in the general election Nov. 4.