In the nonpartisan runoff election for Miami-Dade property appraiser, both candidates are Cuban-born. Both are long-time residents, and both are staunch Republicans.
But differences abound between the two men.
Pedro J. Garcia, 77, is a professional property appraiser and Realtor with more than 38 years in the business. He served as Miami-Dade’s first elected property appraiser from 2009 through 2012, then narrowly lost his bid for reelection in 2012 to Carlos López-Cantera.
Eduardo “Eddy” González, 44, has no experience in appraising property. González is a career Hialeah politician who is facing term limits in the Florida Legislature as he wraps up his second term. He is employed as a business development leader at CAC-Florida Medical Centers, an HMO.
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The race for property appraiser was triggered when López-Cantera resigned from the post in January, just a year into his four-year term, to accept appointment as lieutenant governor. Lazaro Solis, a career administrator for Miami-Dade County, has been running the office pending the election. López-Cantera is running for lieutenant governor Nov. 4 on the Republican ticket with Gov. Rick Scott.
While laboring mostly behind the scenes, the property appraiser plays a crucial role in county government. The office sets the taxable value for almost a million parcels of commercial and residential property in Miami-Dade and certifies the tax rolls for cities and other taxing authorities. It has an annual budget of $34.7 million and 361 employees.
The office might not seem like a cauldron for controversy. However, a huge number of assessment appeals filed with the Value Adjustment Board — many of which prevail — have cast doubt on the accuracy of county appraisals.
Shouldering a big backlog, the VAB, a separate entity, just began hearing appeals for the 2013 tax year in June after completing the 2012 appeals in May. About 45 percent of cases have resulted in assessment reductions.
Another high-profile issue — homestead-exemption fraud — emerged several years ago during the municipal budget crunches of the Great Recession — when Garcia was in office. The property appraiser’s office was pressured to step up efforts to weed out residential owners who claimed tax breaks they weren’t entitled to, often paring their property tax bills by thousands of dollars.
Despite efforts in recent years to target fraud, many believe the problem remains pervasive — crimping county revenue.
Both Garcia and González contend they are best-prepared to tackle the job.
“There is enough [homestead] fraud in the county that we can cover holes in the budget,” González said. “My opponent didn’t chase homestead fraud when he was in office.”
Garcia said he is better-qualified than a “professional politician” to continue the work he began during his first term.
When the two men duked it out in a five-candidate race in August, Garcia led the pack with 35.4 percent of the vote and González placed second with 25.6 percent.
González has raised $348,000 in campaign contributions, more than twice as much as the $167,000 that Garcia has taken in, according to disclosure reports. González carried over almost $116,000 from fund-raising for a 2015 Hialeah City Council campaign that he scrapped in favor of the property appraiser’s race.
County Mayor Carlos Gimenez and several county commissioners have endorsed González, whose longtime ties to Hialeah make him a powerful ally in that city. González has also clinched the endorsement of high-profile Republican U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio.
Garcia has been endorsed by several powerful local-government employee unions, including the Dade County Police Benevolent Association and the South Florida AFL-CIO, whose members tend to turn out in force for such races. The Service Employees International Union, however, has endorsed González.
Garcia “has vast knowledge and experience in the real estate market and, of course, in the property appraiser’s office, while his opponent has none,” said John Rivera, president of the Dade PBA, which represents county police employees.
“Why are [Mayor] Carlos Gimenez and some of the commissioners helping Eddy González? They want to use him to increase property values and reach into the pockets of everybody,” Garcia told the Miami Herald. “They don’t want me there because I’m going to be fair with the [property] values.” He said his goal is “to finish the job I started” during his first term.
Garcia, who owns Miami-based Exclusive Realty Corp., has drawn a lot of contributions from property-tax consultants, who make a living by appealing property assessments to the VAB. He has also drawn support from real estate agents, including the Miami Association of Realtors.
In 2012, Garcia lost to López-Cantera by a vote of 51 percent to 49 percent, with the race decided by López-Cantera’s better showing among absentee voters. Garcia had more votes on Election Day and from early voting than López-Cantera, who at the time was facing term limits in the Legislature, where he was House Majority leader.
Garcia has solid name recognition across the county — an edge that González has been working hard and spending heavily to match. While González has served two terms in the Legislature and was previously on the Hialeah City Council, the August election marked his first countywide race.
Still, his campaign consultant, David Custin, said he is confident of González’s prospects.
“You can be an underdog in a four-way or five-way race, and all of a sudden in a runoff, you can have an advantage,” Custin said. “Voters do clearly see González for this office as new, fresh blood — the same way they picked López-Cantera over Pedro Garcia in 2012.”
González’s critics have asserted that he was among a group of allied Hialeah politicians for whom Deisy Cabrera worked. Cabrera, a boletera, or ballot broker, was charged with voter fraud in connection with collecting absentee ballots in the 2012 primary. Last October, she pleaded no contest to two misdemeanor charges of illegally possessing multiple absentee ballots, and was sentenced to one year of probation. The judge withheld adjudication on those charges, and prosecutors dropped the felony voter-fraud charge.
González has consistently denied hiring Cabrera. “Did I know her? Sure,” he said in an interview.
“But she never worked for me.”
Eduardo “Eddy” S. González
Born: Cardenas, Matanzas, Cuba; came to Miami in 1971.
Job: Business development leader at CAC-Florida Medical Centers, an HMO.
Background: Faced term limits following two terms in the Florida House. Served past two years as chairman of the Miami-Dade Legislative Delegation. Hialeah City Council member, 1998-2006.
Political party: Republican.
Pedro J. Garcia
Born: Havana, Cuba; came to Miami in 1962.
Job: Professional property appraiser and owner of Exclusive Realty Corp.
Background: Served as Miami-Dade Property Appraiser 2008-12; defeated by Carlos López-Cantera in November 2012 election.
Political party: Republican.