||By request of the Chair, Assistant County Attorney Robert Duvall provided a brief overview of the foregoing report, which he noted involved an investigation by the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice (DOJ) into the County’s jail system. In 2008-09, the DOJ issued a report which found that the following violations in the County jail system: Inmate overpopulation, numerous violations relating to medical and mental health issues, lack of infrastructure, and excessive force. He advised that the Mayor had recently issued a transmittal memorandum, with an attached document listing the problems identified by the DOJ, and the measures that were undertaken in response to the various issues and recommendations that were contained in the document. Mr. Duvall further noted since the time of these findings both DOJ and the Department of Corrections & Rehabilitation Services was in the process of moving forward with those recommendations with anticipation of negotiations with the DOJ. He said he met with the counsel for DOJ, and a meeting was tentatively scheduled in October to review the status.
Additionally, Assistant County Attorney Duval noted he believed substantial improvements had been made that resolved many of these issues, and the final results would be presented to this Committee. Essentially, under the state statute, the charge of the DOJ was to identify serious systemic, constitutional violations; and the DOJ could file a federal lawsuit after the prescribed deadline expired, unless all parties involved reached a consensus.
Agenda Item 1D5 Oral Report
Assistant County Attorney Gerald Sanchez read the foregoing report into the record.
Mr. Pedro Garcia, the County’s Property Appraiser, responded to concerns regarding homestead tax exemption fraud in Miami-Dade County. Mr. Garcia noted in the past six months Miami-Dade Police Department provided two agents to work with his office to expedite the inspection of property liens, and revenues from liens on properties had increased to $5 million per year since he was elected as Property Appraiser in 2009. He also noted the Department had met with the Mayor, the Police Chief, and the Inspector General; and they all agreed that increased fraud investigations were necessary to reduce fraud. He noted that more agents from the Miami-Dade Police Department would be trained beginning next week; and that the proposal to increase fraud investigations did not originate from his office.
Ms. Patra Liu, Assistant Inspector General, noted the Office of Inspector General’s (OIG’s) had been involved in the past with homestead exemption fraud investigations and some cases led to accrual prosecution, but currently not as involved although cases were referred to the Property Appraiser. She noted in 2001, OIG had fully investigated 14 fraud cases and presented them to the State Attorney’s Office (SAO) for prosecution that had an estimated value of liens were approximately $300,000. However, the cases were remanded to the Property Appraiser after the SAO failed to prosecute, Ms. Liu noted. She also noted the OIG’s past involvement was reflected in a report of total and permanent disability homeowner’s tax exemption fraud in 2008, which was separate from the standard homestead tax exemption, wherein 42 cases with survivors of homeowners who passed away continued to benefit from this exemption, which was also presented to the SAO for prosecution. Ms. Liu noted OIG’s current involvement in referring cases to the Property Appraiser and that the OIG met with all the leaders in this County a month ago and would continue to provide assistance
Following Chairman Diaz’s comments on his rationale for requesting this presentation, Mr. Miguel Exposito, Chief of Miami-Dade Police Department, noted their partnership with the Property Appraiser’s Office (PAO) started in March 2011; and that two fully trained police officers worked closely with the PAO in this effort. He said additional officers would be trained to assist.
Mr. James Bernardo, a retired Police Major, appeared before the PSHAC and explained his role in the Economic Crimes Unit Pilot Program in January 2011. He noted since this program was implemented, $750,000 had been recovered within six months. He also noted that, through the collaborative efforts of the officers in training, the PA received approximately 4,000 complaints. Miami-Dade County was in the lead regarding the investigation of homestead exemption fraud, which had become an epidemic. He suggested the County initiate a comprehensive public campaign and give the public an opportunity to correct fraud violations without penalty.
Mr. Lazaro Solis, County Deputy Property Appraiser, concurred with Mr. Bernardo regarding the overwhelming number of fraud violators reported; however, only three of every ten cases were determined to be actual fraudulent and of those, many were determined to be unintentional.
Following further explanation by Mr. Solis, Chairman Diaz clarified that the goal was to recover the monies owed to the County as a result of homestead exemption fraud, not to prosecute offenders. He emphasized the importance for the County to launch a public awareness campaign going forward, as suggested by Mr. Solis.
Property Appraiser Garcia noted penalties could be imposed retroactively for the past ten years for homestead exemption fraud in addition to 15 percent interest per year. He noted his department had taken a direct approach to recover monies owed to the County.
In response to Commissioner Souto’s question as to whether homestead exemption fraud was committed by people who rented a room or efficiency in their home, Mr. Garcia noted the amount paid to rent any area within the house should be deducted from the respective homestead exemption.
Following further comments, Commissioner Souto emphasized the need to revisit the legal constraints to eliminating fraud and other illegal activity in this community, noting some of the loss revenue to Miami-Dade County was a result of fraud. He also noted the County was becoming the nation’s fraud capital growing in Medicare, Medicaid, and in banking institutions.
Discussion ensued among the Committee members regarding the Property Appraiser’s, the OIG’s role in assisting with fraud investigations, and law enforcement agencies roles in investigating homestead exemption fraud.
Mr. Garcia commended on the work efforts of the Miami-Dade Police Department (MDPD) and other agencies that provided assistance; however, he noted the process needed to be handled carefully because most leads were from domestic complaints.
Commissioner Heyman recalled her past concerns regarding write-offs for delinquent taxes, creating years of collections based on the Florida statute. Commissioner Heyman explained her three areas of concern resulted from feedback regarding the return of the tax rolls. She described her concern with the State Attorney’s Office declining to prosecute fraud cases and expressed the need to request a representative from the State Attorney’s Office to appear before this Committee.
In response to Commissioner Heyman’s question regarding the process, Ms. Liu noted that a 2004 Statistics Report indicated that two homestead exemption fraud cases were brought up for criminal prosecution. She noted four total and permanent disability exemption fraud cases were prosecuted in 2008. Ms. Liu stated that several cases were brought to the State Attorney’s Office with open investigations; but failed to prosecute. She noted that the fully investigated cases were referred to the Property Appraisers Office.
Commissioner Heyman requested information on the State Attorney’s Office’s current criteria to determine whether to prosecute a fraud case, level of information required to effectuate prosecution, and rationale for failing to prosecute. She also questioned the penalties for this type of fraud and whether it impacted a homeowner’s eligibility.
Discussion ensued regarding the process for pursuing homestead fraud cases.
Commissioner Heyman noted the Association of Counties that had a link to Vital Statistics that could address a pool of individuals who might unintentionally fail to make payments on the full value of their home to improve the system.
Deputy Property Appraiser Solis noted the system already had a link that automatically removed names from the homestead tax exemption list once released from the State.
In response to Commissioner Heyman’s inquiry regarding who had subpoena authority, Assistant County Attorney Sanchez noted the Inspector General (OIG), MDPD, and State Attorney’s Office had the power to serve subpoenas; however, in this case it would be the OIG.
Ms. Liu noted that the OIG had offered assistance in serving subpoenas and she believed the MDPD officers had obtained information by using the subpoena power of the State Attorney’s Office.
Commissioner Heyman asked whether the Property Appraiser’s Office could work directly with the OIG for assistance, in an effort to shorten the process
Following discussion, Commissioner Bell recommended a three-way partnership be established between the Property Appraiser, OIG, and MDPD. She expressed disappointment in the State Attorney’s Office’s decision to decline prosecuting individuals who intentionally committed homestead exemption tax fraud. Commissioner Bell noted residents should be informed that they could access the 311 Call Center to report suspected homestead tax exemption fraud. She referenced her conversation with the Mayor regarding the ability to install a toll free number for reporting fraud as a way to resolve this issue.
In response to Commissioner Jordan’s inquiry regarding the total number of cases the State Attorney’s Office failure to prosecute, Ms. Liu noted that in 2009, approximately eight cases were formally submitted to the State Attorney’s Office for assignment of an investigative case number. She advised that the end result was a receipt of a close-out declination number.
Commissioner Jordan noted that the State Attorney’s Office would have moved forward if these cases were valid for prosecution. She noted she concurred with the Property Appraiser’s explanation that extenuating circumstances had occurred, considering the small number of cases
Commissioner Jordan commended the Property Appraiser for reviewing the entire perspective of each case rather than viewing it as a law enforcement case. She noted the need to carefully identify and address intentional violations of fraud in order to recover the County’s revenue.
In response to Commissioner Jordan’s question regarding a timeframe for homeowners to re-certify their homestead exemption, Mr. Garcia noted the deadline was March 1st.
Discussion ensued among Committee members regarding the process for homeowners to re-certify the homestead exemption, and the approximate 10,000 letters received by the Property Appraiser’s Office regarding senior exemptions.
Mr. Garcia explained that the annual recertification requirement applied to senior citizens once the homeowner had been certified.
Commissioner Jordan noted that predominant homestead exemption fraud involved cases in which the qualifier was deceased and recertification was not required. She noted that an annual or three-year recertification requirement would severely reduce the number of fraud occurrences.
Mr. Solis noted that, in the past, the Board decided to automatically renew the existing 442,000 homestead exemptions, in accordance with State Statute. He noted that, if this process was reversed, each homeowner would have to reapply annually, which would require additional staff to process.
Commissioner Jordan noted that requiring each homeowner to recertify his/her homestead exemption by signing a confirmation that residency status was unchanged, would reverse the process.
Mr. Solis advised that the automatic renewal of the homestead exemption required no action, in an effort to make the process simple; however, the senior exemption form had to be signed and returned annually. He noted that there were approximately 50,000 active senior homestead exemptions and that this would be a timely process and the added expense of following up with certified letters if the forms were not returned.
Mr. Solis agreed with Commissioner Jordan’s comment that these changes would also be in violation of state law; however, without discussing it with the County Attorney, he believed the current statute read, once the automatic renewal was received, property owners should send in a notification when they no longer qualified for homestead exemption. Prior to this, a courtesy renewal notice was mailed to provide a verification method along with a warning of severe penalties of committing fraud and violating the law. He offered samples forms to Committee members for review and possible revisions, pointing out that certain specific terms were required by law.
Assistant County Attorney Tom Logue concurred with Mr. Solis’ comments that this matter was dependent on state law. He noted he would have to look at the statute to identify a way to balance this approach. Reiterating that the County did opt to continue to automatically renew the exemptions; he noted he believed the state statute did not provide the type of middle ground being suggested today. Mr. Logue advised that a request to amend the statute could be submitted.
In response to Commissioner Jordan’s inquiry as to whether this Board had a choice, Mr. Solis noted the automatic renewal of the homestead exemption was adopted by the Board and, according to the state statute, was binding. He noted that a couple of items were recently presented to the Board with similar exemptions wherein the provision in the statute allowed an automatic renewal. Mr. Solis noted this would not prevent the County Property Appraiser’s Office‘s audit function, which he believed was part of this discussion on how to track violations and ensure compliance.
Assistant County Attorney Logue asked that he be allowed to review this matter and come back with confirmation on this information.
Commissioner Jordan asked what the ramifications would be if the County voted to terminate automatic renewals of the homestead exemptions.
Commissioner Souto noted the different types of fraud presented a clear and a serious case in this County that related to the law. He noted the need to send a message to the public to stop fraud in Miami-Dade County.
In response to Commissioner Bovo’s inquiry regarding the percentage of possible fraudulent activity, Property Appraiser Garcia noted he believed that 35 percent out of 3,500 leads received involved true homestead fraudulent activity. He noted that every person identified as having committed fraud was penalized 50 percent per year, which could cover up to 10 years.
Commissioner Bovo concurred with Commissioner Souto’s comments regarding compliance with the law. He noted that he was mindful of certain fraud cases that were unintentional; however, if issues were examined to ensure people were aware, it would be necessary to proceed aggressively.
Chairman Diaz asked Assistant County Attorney Gerald Sanchez to contact the State Attorney and asked that she send a representative or a letter to the October 25, 2011 PSHAC meeting regarding the status of efforts to investigate homestead exemption fraud.
Chairman Diaz noted that a resolution was forthcoming at the next County Commission meeting requesting the Mayor or his designee to provide more information, toll free numbers accessible to the community, and to help facilitate this matter.