Miami-Dade, 10 cities, school district hunting for property-tax cheats

Miami-Dade Property Appraiser Carlos Lopez-Cantera is enlisting the aid of cities and Miami-Dade Public Schools to investigate property-tax cheats in a bid to collect more revenue.

Cheating on your property taxes in Miami-Dade County is getting riskier.

Miami-Dade Property Appraiser Carlos Lopez-Cantera is enlisting the help of police officers from at least 10 cities and the school district to investigate homestead-exemption fraud.

Hungry for revenue, the cities and school district plan to deploy at least one police officer each to investigate what by many accounts is a pervasive problem: improper claims of homestead exemption.

Those participating include Miami-Dade Public Schools and the cities of Miami, Hialeah, Coral Gables, South Miami, Pinecrest, Key Biscayne, West Miami, Miami Springs, Miami Gardens, and Sweetwater.

“I believe this is a win-win for all involved,” Lopez-Cantera said of the cooperative effort. “We will continue to be aggressive to find cost-effective ways to identify tax cheats.”

Miami-Dade plans to hold a training program this week to brief police in techniques for identifying and proving homestead-exemption violations, which include property owners who have more than one homestead exemption and those who rent out a property while still declaring it a primary residence.

Lopez-Cantera, the 39-year-old former majority leader of the Florida House who took office as property appraiser in January, had vowed to go after homestead-exemption cheats during his election campaign last year against incumbent Pedro J. Garcia, 79.

The Miami-Dade Police Department has six detectives assigned full-time to investigating homestead-exemption fraud and the property appraiser has seven employees focused on the task.

Even so, Miami-Dade has a backlog of 2,917 leads, and Lopez-Cantera contends that adding police manpower will generate tax revenue for the county and other taxing authorities.

Investigators use various techniques to ferret out improper homestead claims, including looking for those with more than one homestead exemption (in Miami-Dade or elsewhere) and crosschecking exemptions with utility bills and drivers licenses and a host of other publicly available data that would generate a red flag.

The property appraiser has been drumming up awareness of the issue when speaking with homeowner groups and urging residents to turn in violators. Pamphlets urging residents to report tax cheats are included in property-tax correspondence.

And the property appraiser recently added a function on its website to allow the public to report suspected homestead fraud.

When the property appraiser identifies invalid homestead exemptions, it sends the property owner a letter of its intent to lien the property in 30 days if the tab isn’t paid.

So far this year, the property appraiser has filed liens of $9.7 million.

Getting caught can be costly: up to 10 years of unpaid back taxes, plus a 50 percent penalty and 15 percent annual interest.

The difference in property taxes on a residence with homestead and one without can be huge.

Homestead exemption excludes $50,000 from the assessed value of a property used to calculate property taxes, (except on school taxes where the exemption is $25,000). But that is small change compared with the tax savings many people obtain under the Save Our Homes cap.

Under the Save Our Homes state constitutional amendment, which took effect in 1995, the assessed value of homestead property can rise no more than 3 percent a year — no matter how much the market value goes up.

Over time, the cap created big tax disparities on similar residences, with some homeowners facing double or triple the tax bill as a neighbor with a similar home who locked in the Save Our Homes cap at a low level.

This year, as home values have continued to recover from the historic crash, $14.75 billion in Miami-Dade property value is excluded from taxation because of Save Our Homes. That’s up from $13.4 billion shielded from taxation in 2012 but far below the $66 billion that was kept off the tax rolls by the cap in 2008.

Miami-Dade County Public Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said the school district will take advantage of school being out to train an officer “to try to have an impact on the pervasive fraud in our community and its impact on our schools.’’

He added: “For every tax dollar that is fraudulently not paid, kids in Miami-Dade and the educational system suffer.’’

Dade Police Benevolent Association President John Rivera, who urged the county to crackdown on homestead fraud in 2011 as an alternative to concessions by unionized police officers, said homestead fraud remains a hot-button issue.

“Cities are starting to realize if they contribute the manpower and start to find tax cheats, it’s going to have a huge financial impact. We don’t know what the numbers are [in lost tax revenue,] but they could be big numbers.’’