MONROE COUNTY -- When the five-member Monroe County Value Adjustment Board meets Tuesday, May 15 at the Marathon Government Center they'll be facing a familiar situation.
For the 2011 tax year, Florida Keys businesses and homeowners brought 38 properties before an Adjustment Board-appointed magistrate to hear their objections to the valuations done last year by the local tax appraiser's office.
In each case, the magistrates ruled in favor of the office of Property Appraiser Karl Borglum.
It's the third straight year that not a single petitioner has seen his property appraisal -- used by local governments to compute property tax bills -- reduced as a result of a magistrate's ruling.
In fact, only once since 2006 has a hearing magistrate sided with a petitioner in an appeal of the property appraiser's assessment.
The Value Adjustment Board, made up of Monroe County Mayor David Rice, County Commissioner Sylvia Murphy, School Board Chairman John Dick and two at-large members, is tasked Tuesday with final approval of the magistrates' opinions, which under Florida law are only recommendations.
Depending upon one's perspective, the near unanimity of the magistrates' rulings is either a telltale sign that the office of Borglum and his predecessor and former boss Ervin Higgs, who retired early last year, is doing its job well, or it's evidence that the value review process is little more than a formal rubber stamp.
Borglum, naturally, takes the former view.
In an interview Monday, he explained that his office does its best to resolve as many cases as possible before they reach the point of a hearing. Often time, he said, the office reduces the assessment in conjunction with the property owner before the matter goes before the special magistrate.
"The only ones that go to the Value Adjustment Board are the ones that we can't resolve and that's because we feel the evidence supports our positions and that apparently has been the feeling of the special masters," Borglum said.
In contrast, George Scott, who has brought four unsuccessful cases before a Value Adjustment Board magistrate in the past two years, takes the other side of the argument.
"It's a kangaroo court," he said.
This year Scott appealed the appraisal of a rental property he owns on the bayside of Key Largo near mile marker 99.
Scott chafed that his land appraisal went up 35 percent, even though values in Key Largo hadn't been on the rise. He also argued that the value of the home site is diminished due to the view it affords of a garbage bin at a nearby restaurant.
However, Special Magistrate Patricia McGrath was not convinced.
"Petitioner has presented no credible evidence that would overcome the Presumption of Correctness enjoyed by the Property Appraiser's Office," she wrote.
Indeed, under Florida law the property appraiser office is afforded the benefit of the doubt during hearings, provided that it adheres to the valuation methods established by the state. Under those guidelines, properties are to be appraised based upon age, condition, location and saleable value, as well as other factors, such as its zoning and, if it is a rental, the income it generates.
Kevin Talbott, who was one of four special magistrates retained by the Monroe County Value Adjustment Board this year, said that the presumption of correctness was a factor in the eight cases he rendered opinions on, all on the side of the appraiser's office.
But he said the main reason he has yet to rule in favor of a petitioner during his two years as a magistrate is that most people come to the hearings unprepared. Appellants should present their own appraisals, dated to Jan. 1 of the year in question, he said, and then back them up with sales and appraisal figures of similar properties.
"As far as it being a kangaroo court, not really, everybody is unprepared," Talbott said.
But Scott sees things differently. Appraisal errors, he said, are not being redressed.
"I have found mistake after mistake," Scott said.