When Government Goofs, Give it Back

By Daily Editorials

September 20, 2016 4 min read

If taxes are levied due to a mistake made by government, those taxes should be wholly repaid — with interest.

Every year, across the state of Florida, millions of property tax bills go out. It's safe to say that most property owners' eyes go straight to the total. Some might look at the tax rates charged by various governmental entities and shake their heads (or, if they're from certain parts of the Northeast, marvel at how low they are). But very few property owners look at the listed value of their property. Even fewer go online to make sure the value is calculated correctly.

That's not to say mistakes aren't made: A property line that's a few feet in the wrong direction, an outbuilding that blew down a few storms ago and was never replaced or — as was recently described in a story about former Holly Hill Mayor Bill Arthur — land that a property owner thought he had a claim to turned out to belong to the city. (In Arthur's case, he didn't claim sole ownership but thought he had a property interest known as "riparian rights," which would have let him build a dock on the land.)

Each county has a way to fix mistakes in valuations, through value adjustment boards that hear appeals and have the ability to adjust official valuations. But what happens if the mistakes go on for years, even decades, as they did in Arthur's case? According to Florida law, assessments based on mistakes by the government can be refunded — but only for the current year, plus the most recent three. As a result, The News-Journal's Tony Holt reported Arthur could claim a refund of about $600 — even though he estimates he's paid thousands in mistakenly assessed taxes.

That just doesn't seem right. The government commands imperious powers over property owners, including the right to seize and sell their land for unpaid taxes. It only makes sense that if taxes are levied due to a mistake made by government, those taxes should be wholly repaid — with interest.

Flagler County Property Appraiser Jay Gardner agrees that such cases are probably rare. One that stood out, from a time when he served as a private appraiser, was a property owner who was being charged for a 2,600 square-foot, two-story oceanfront house. When Gardner looked at the property, he realized it was actually one story — on stilts. The actual square footage was only 1,300.

Gardner offers a few important caveats: It's not fair, he says, to hold government responsible when it didn't make a mistake — for example, when a property owner removes a significant improvement (like a boat lift) but doesn't let his office know. He also notes that refunds mean raking back money from a wide array of governments, all of which budgeted and spent the funds in the years the taxes were levied.

With much of the business of appraisal and tax collecting handled by computer and electronic fund transfer, however, such concerns are not difficult to address. And such cases are said to be rare, so it won't much affect government's bottom line.

It will make a difference to that property owner who learns that he or she has been overpaying the government for years. And, at its heart, it's a matter of simple justice: The government shouldn't claim taxes it's not legally entitled to. This would be a simple, and presumably popular, legislative fix — one we'd like to see local lawmakers take on.

REPRINTED FROM THE PANAMA CITY NEWS HERALD

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