Finding funds lost to erroneous tax exemptions is a meticulous business, perhaps too meticulous for just two people.
Currently, only a couple county employees with the Property Appraiser’s Office are responsible for identifying Pinellas’ undeserved personal property tax exemptions.
A move made by County Commissioners last week, however, which allows property tax dollars to be used as funding for exemption audit services, will pave the way for an outside company — Tax Management Associates, Inc. (TMA) — to move in and shoulder the brunt of that work.
The TMA deal, which was requested by both the Property Appraiser’s and Tax Collector’s Offices, while intended, still isn’t official. Once things become legitimatized though, TMA will stand to make 30 percent of any tax, penalties, and interest collected from assessed back taxes or tax liens filed by the Pinellas Property Appraiser on parcels identified by TMA as having an undeserved personal exemption — a fee which will be paid by the county exclusively through the taxes, penalties, and interest collected as a result of any un-earned personal exemption fix.
Usually, for business contracts of this size, the county would examine competitive bids from multiple companies before deciding on which one to hire. However, this time around, the Property Appraiser didn’t release a competitive bid, because, the county contends, TMA, who has an exclusive agreement with Lexis-Nexis, the largest provider of electronic data for public records related information, is the “sole provider” capable of identifying fraudulent homestead exemptions — Pinellas’ most notable erroneous tax exemption.
Legally speaking, homestead exemptions are mainly intended for Florida resident homeowners. They provide an average minimum savings of about $500 per year, per receiving-individual.
Illegally speaking, if a property owner gets caught claiming a homestead exemption they don’t deserve, a lien will be filed on their property for 20 years, or until the county collects all the unpaid taxes its owed. A penalty equal to 50 percent of what is owed will also be tacked on, as well as an additional 15 percent interest on each year the taxes went unpaid. However, if the mistake was on the Pinellas County Property Appraiser’s Office, only the base tax amount needs to be repaid.
As far as the two Pinellas County employees who currently deal with undeserved personal exemption properties go, well, they’ll still have their jobs. Their roles will just shift to managing the TMA contract, finalizing lien letters, closing cases, and verifying dates, information, and contractor recommendations.