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St. Pete retirement communities decry ‘unlawful’ property appraisal, seek tax refunds

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Three St. Petersburg retirement communities are accusing the Pinellas County Property Appraiser’s office of “unlawfully” calculating of property values, leading to overpayment of thousands of dollars on its 2016 tax bill.

In separate lawsuits, owners of the three properties are suing Mike Twitty, as Pinellas County Property Appraiser; tax collector Charles W. Thomas and Leon M. Biegalski, who serves as executive director of the Florida Department of Revenue.

The suits, filed June 19 and 20 in Pinellas County Circuit Court, are for Westminster Suncoast at 1095 Pinellas Point; Westminster Shores at 125 56th Ave. S and Westminster Palms at 939 Beach Dr. NE, all in St. Petersburg.

Each is a “church-based” community owned by Westminster Communities of Florida, a not-for-profit organization based in Orlando.

According to county records, the combined 2016 property tax bill for the three properties was $377,836: Westminster Suncoast (Property Appraiser page) was assessed $69,952.31; Westminster Shores (Property Appraiser page), $172,069.92 and Westminster Palms (Property Appraiser page) $135,803.88.

Westminster Communities is alleging property taxes assessed on each of three retirement communities it owns were based on an appraised value that “greatly exceeds the just value of the subject property.”

The company claims it is because the County Property Appraiser “ignored or did not properly apply the Florida Real Property Appraisal Guidelines” and “unlawfully, systematically, and intentionally substituted his own assessment policy instead of following” state law and guidelines.

Furthermore, they say the Appraiser’s method allegedly was “unrealistic, unjust, excessive, [and] arbitrary.”

Each of the three properties now receives a large property-tax exemption. For instance, although the Property Appraiser estimates Westminster Shores’ market value at $21.6-million, exemptions reduce the taxable amount by roughly two-thirds, bringing it to $7.7-million.

“As a result of the foregoing over-valuation, the 2016 market value and assessed value greatly exceeds the just value of the subject properly,” the suit continues, “and the ad valorem taxes resulting therefrom substantially exceed the taxes which would  have  been  levied  on  the subject  property had it been  properly assessed.”

Westminster, founded in 1954, owns 21 Florida retirement communities with nearly 7,000 residents. Although Westminster paid its assessed 2016 tax bills in full, the company is saying it is not an admission that the tax was the correct amount due.

Westminster is asking the court for a partial refund.

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Phil Ammann is a St. Petersburg-based journalist and blogger. With more than three decades of writing, editing and management experience, Phil produced material for both print and online, in addition to founding HRNewsDaily.com. His broad range includes covering news, local government and culture reviews for Patch.com, technical articles and profiles for BetterRVing Magazine and advice columns for a metaphysical website, among others. Phil has served as a contributor and production manager for SaintPetersBlog since 2013. He lives in St. Pete with his wife, visual artist Margaret Juul and can be reached at phil@floridapolitics.com and on Twitter @PhilAmmann.

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