9 Investigates property tax breaks for Orange County homeowners



ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. - 9 Investigates has discovered property tax breaks for Orange County homeowners who aren't entitled to Florida’s popular homestead exemptions.

Floridians who own a home and make it their permanent residence are eligible for several homestead exemptions, but Channel 9's Kenneth Craig found more than 1,000 people were stripped of undeserved homestead exemptions in the last six months.

Orange County's new property appraiser, Rick Singh, insists he is cracking down on the cases and bringing millions back to the tax rolls.

Craig spoke to neighbors of an exclusive lakeside Winter Park home who said they've never seen the real homeowners. When Craig and his cameraman stopped by, they couldn't find the homeowners either, but Craig did find an online listing marketing the home as a vacation rental.

Still, the homeowner somehow managed to get a homestead exemption and thousands of dollars in property tax breaks for years before the error was caught.

It's a problem that Singh said goes well beyond the Winter Park neighborhood.

"It was a significant problem, because the numbers speak for themselves," Singh said.

During the last six months, Singh's team's granted more than 14,000 homestead exemptions, but his staff also denied 1,444 exemptions during the same period.

Singh said the year-to-date count equals more than the total for the whole previous year, which is why he launched an enhanced effort to crack down on homeowners who aren't entitled to the exemptions because their properties are not their primary residences.

Records 9 Investigates obtained show during the same time frame, the investigations have brought back $51 million worth of residential property to the tax rolls.

Craig put that number in perspective, calculating that it would be like taking a vast empty lot and adding more than 250 new homes valued at $200,000 each.

Homeowners Craig told about the property appraiser's investigations applauded the efforts to eliminate exemptions for those who do not deserve them.

"I think that's excellent," said homeowner Cale Burkett.

"Wrong is wrong," said Michael Smith, another homeowner.

Craig left contact information with several homeowners who were recently stripped of their exemptions, but none called back.

Typically, homeowners who are permanent residents in their homes can have at least $50,000 worth of property value exempt through homestead exemptions.

As for the initial Winter Park vacation rental, 9 Investigates learned the homeowner recently appealed to get her exemption reinstated and won.

After Channel 9 started asking questions the vacation listing that had appeared online was taken down.

The property appraiser's office told Craig it is now investigating that same house again.

"Most people do the right thing," Singh said. "(But) there is that small percentage that will always try to cut corners and game the system."

Singh's office said the $51 million in property value returned to the tax rolls has generated about $1 million in actual revenue.

Craig also found if you are caught knowingly giving false information to get an exemption, you can face a misdemeanor charge, a fine and up to one year in jail.

Singh's office released this statement: "Because of the changes the Singh Administration has implemented, OCPA completed processing 841 more applications this year than 2012, which has resulted in 1,444 denials, based on disqualifying factors like death of owner or non-residency. This translates to $51,245,527.00 returned to the tax role.

"In addition, these new measures have also allowed Mr. Singh's Administration to grant 14,763 exemption applications, giving much needed relief to qualifying Orange County homeowners. That number is up 436 exemptions granted so far, compared to last year, and this could increase as people complete applications or late-file. We have an open-door policy to discuss these cases, so if a homeowner feels they were improperly denied an exemption, we will give them every opportunity to establish their residency and/or qualification. We want to ensure a fair and equitable appraisal."