Tuesday, October 16, 2007

A Resounding Silence

Some newspaper publishers are willing to correct errors that appear in their pages. Other publishers seem willing to let errors go, expecting (I suppose) that memories are short. This seems to be the case with Sunday's editorial page fiasco, " Property tax reform needs a reality check ."

Among other things (see yesterday's entry,"Facts: They're What We Do," below) the editorial calls for tax reform because, the newspaper's writer informs readers, "In some counties, the property tax values on the tax rolls are so low that not a single homeowner pays ad valorem taxes. Not one."

I asked (in an e-mail) the Sun publisher and two top-level editors the question: Which counties would those be? The response: No response Sunday, no response Monday, and here we are, no response Tuesday.

So I had to do some digging on my own.

Because the editors who wrote the editorial and made the assertion wouldn't reveal their sources, I spent a few hours yesterday and this morning looking at Florida Department of Revenue's 2006 Databook. It's a great document that includes more than a hundred tables, nicely organized by county. The tables show the source of just about any ad valorem appraisal one might want to know about, including residential, commercial, government, and even railroad real-property appraisals. The tables also show exemptions, including ones for homesteads, widows, disabled servicepersons, folks over age 65 and more. All in all, there are more than a hundred tables of last year's tax dollar assessments compared to the four prior years, all neatly and clearly arranged for all 67 Florida counties.

In searching for places where the property tax values on the tax rolls are so low that not a single homeowner pays ad valorem taxes, I paid special attention to the five poorest counties and the counties where the tax folks reported the greatest number of exemptions.

Try as I might, I did not find a single county (much less counties, plural, as the editorial asserts) reporting all its residents were exempt from paying property taxes or because tax values on the tax rolls are so low that not a single homeowner paid ad valorem taxes.

Now, I'm not a tax expert, and the 2006 Databook has a lot of numbers for an English major to crunch. So I telephoned the property appraiser in my little town and explained to him the how, what, and why of this little investigation. He was quick.

"The paper was wrong," said Dave Williams, a DeSoto County property apprasier. He went on to explain that an individual may own and live in residence whose assessed value is less than $25,000 ("I can assure you it's not a house that you or I would want to live in," he said.). And, if that individual claimed the $25,000 homestead exemption, then he or she would pay no personal property taxes. "But that's an individual, not the whole county," he said.

Did he know, I asked him, of Florida counties where every resident has enough exemptions and/or where property tax values on the rolls are so low that not a single homeowner pays ad valorem taxes? His answer: No. The situation does not exist.

So where did the editorial writer get this information? To what extent did he or she attempt to verify the statement? Did any editor in charge of reading the editorial page question a remarkable assertion that has not appeared in any other newspaper or magazine article that I can find on the Internet during this entire year-long debate?

I don't know the answer to that one. I'll let you know when I find out.

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