Tuesday, July 14, 2009

DeSoto Property Values Lower: Why? Don't Ask

Important local story today: The property appraiser's annual tally of real estate values adds up to about 10 percent less than last year's value. The story's sub-head includes the words "some skeptical," and the appraiser himself is quoted in the story as saying the tote isn't the 20-percent decline he had expected.

So, does our inquiring reporter ask the nice government official why? After all, it's one of the five W's, and a biggie, at that.

The nice reporter asks a nice real estate broker first. She says, "it's a great time to sell your property and buy another. " Not really helpful or even on topic, except if you're pressed into writing a dozen paragraphs in three days. The reporter's next attempt at relevance is a second real estate broker, who edges closer to the meat of the matter ("I can tell you in the real life, the housing market is down more than 10 percent"). But our government watchdog isn't watching. Most people, even folks who aren't trained reporters, would return to the property appraiser and ask, "Why? If the market's down a lot more than 10 percent, why don't your valuations seem to relfect that?"

Now, the property appraiser might explain to an inquiring citizen that so-called homestead properties have been enjoying a 3-percent cap on tax-value hikes for the last 15 years or so (ever since Florida voters approved the so-called SOS amendment to the state constitution that capped annual homestead valuation increases to 3 percent). Even in down-market years, those properties' valuations for tax purposes are allowed to rise a full 3 percent until taxable value catches up with market value. DeSoto has a high percentage of homesteaded properties; it's not a vacation land populated with second homes that would have been unaffected by the artificially low tax values awarded to homesteads.

Or, the inquiring reporter himself might have looked into a sampling of homes sold in the last year or so (but that would require genuine curiosity and a willingness to work at one's chosen profession). If the number of properties sold last year and the year before were relatively few, it is conceivable that there has been little impact on market price calculations. Again, this is not a hot real estate market and turnover might be historically low (I don't know this; but if I were a sharp reporter, I'd certainly ask).

Or -- there are certainly three or four additional factors that go into the fairly complex (but not opaque or unknowable) property valuation system. A real reporter, rather than a spokesman for his friends in government, would help taxpayers and readers understand how the system works: --->

The story fails to serve readers due simply to laziness and amateurism.

A real reporter might use this story to launch the yearly millage-rate explanation -- especially in light of a county commissioner's nearly meaningless quote: "I will not support a millage increase..." Now, the good commissioner is about to discover that when values go down, he can't use the same millage as last year to generate an equal amount this year. In order to maintain a flat level of spending on lower values, the millage must increase. It's a law of arithmetic, or something. Are taxpayers going to understand this? Not by reading John Lawhorne. That's the lazy part.

The amateurish part is, once again (this is becoming a habit), the reporter doesn't tell readers when this news broke. When did the property appraiser finish his tally? Was that Monday when there was "no paper?" or last Friday? This sloppy omission is doubly curious because the lede describes the property appraiser "working under the pressure of a 10-day extension." Ten days from when is not reported; who issued the extension is not reported; why the extension had been requested and granted is not reported. How the delay affects the work and timeframes available to the school board, county, and other taxing districts is not reported.

And, to make things sloppier and lazier, it looks like the reporter didn't bother doing the math. If last year's taxable value in the county was $1.8 billion and this year's is $1.6 billion, the $200 million difference is 11 percent less than last year's figure, not 10 percent as reported. Likewise, if the City of Arcadia's taxable value last year was $232 million and this year's is $218 million, then the $14 million difference is 6 percent less than last year's figure, not the 10 percent reported.

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