JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Public safety, schools, roads, and other local projects are being short-changed by some people cheating the system. Nearly every homeowner pays property taxes, and if it's your permanent residence, you get a tax break worth thousands of dollars -- called the homestead exemption.
The problem is, some people who own multiple homes are lying about where they live in order to keep that money for themselves, while others are just confused about how the exemption works.
You can't claim homestead exemption if a residence is not your permanent house. And, if you are married, you and your spouse cannot claim homestead on two separate properties -- although there are rare exceptions.
The I-TEAM dug through property records and found Duval County is trying to get back millions in owed tax dollars, that would otherwise be lost. That dollar figure topped $3 million in 2016 alone. Right now, there could be 2,000 people who aren't paying their fair share.
"To me, it's like extortion," Duval County homeowner Mitch Kaufmann told the I-TEAM.
Kaufmann, who lives at the beach, is mad because he got caught by the Property Appraiser's Office, cheating the county out of tax money.
Kaufmann got a tax break on this home, claiming he lived there full time, but the county says he was actually renting part of it out instead. Now he has $5,493 lien on the home -- which is essentially a bill from the county to pay up.
"I was really surprised when I got a call from the property appraiser saying that I owed back taxes on my house for the homestead exemption thing," said Kaufmann. "I got married briefly and I maintain my home, just in case. And I was only gone for a year and they're charging me for two years."
It's sort of double whammy for Kaufmann now. Not only does he owe the back taxes and fines, his tax bill is going to skyrocket also, because he will now have to pay on the home's current value.
Duval County Property Appraiser Jerry Holland said the homestead exemption not only gives you a tax break, it also keeps the taxable value of your home way down -- which sometimes amounts to hundreds of thousands of dollars in the assessed value of the house. That's a huge tax break.
"That's why sometimes people will go out of their way to keep that homestead when they're not entitled to it," Holland said.
He said his office sees quite a few cases, but it is hard to prove intent. So, he has inspectors who go door-to-door to figure it all out.
The I-TEAM went along with a group of inspectors as they investigated several homes on the Southside, at the beaches, on the Westside, and the Northside. Inspectors go based on either a tip that the homeowner doesn't actually live at the property, or records just don't match.
"It can be a little bit of both," explained Sara Machado with the Property Appraiser's Office. "We have had them come in where people are just upset. We've also had some where the neighbors are just concerned because they don't feel that their neighbor's paying their fair share or they don't feel that it's right for them to collect homestead if they're not entitled to it. So, that's why we come out. We want to verify and see exactly what's going on."
While the I-TEAM was with the inspectors, they found some problems, but for the most part, it all checked out. But digging through records, we found other cases and more liens against homeowners in an effort for the county to collect money it's owed.
We tracked down homeowner Caroline Patterson, who lives in a house in North Jacksonville. But, she's also listed as the owner of another house not far away. Records show Patterson is claiming homestead exemption for the house she doesn't live in -- a home where her son resides. Because it's not where she lives herself, she owes over $1,900 in taxes the county says she should have paid.
"They're trying to put me homeless is what they're trying to do," said Patterson.
Holland tells us that's not the case. He says people have been put on notice. Holland knows people can get confused about what they should and should not claim.
As an example, Holland explains that sometimes, a relative dies, and the family continues to claim homestead under that person's name. Which is what Holland says is happening at a home on the Eastside -- not far from Talleyrand.
At that Eastside home, the family actually signed an official document with the deceased homeowners' names. We tried to get their side of the story, but family members didn't want to talk. The Property Appraiser's office is taking this case to court to recoup property taxes the county is owed.
The I-TEAM tracked down Mary Allderdice as well, but her story is somewhat different. She told us she has had a piece of property in South Mandarin in her family for years.
It may not look it now, but it is three acres of prime waterfront land. The Property Appraiser's Office said Allderdice claims that waterfront property as her primary home, but says she actually lives full time in Springfield with her husband, who claims homestead there. The county has placed a $158,000 lien on her property, which she says it isn't right.
"I have family staying there, and so it is a family home to me, and while I'm not there in residence all the time, I feel that it is still my primary home because it has been my home since I was 5½ years old. I've only lived here [Springfield] off and on since 2002," she told the I-TEAM.
"I think people ought to get homestead exemptions who are entitled to it. When someone gets it, and they are not entitled to it, it means everybody else is subsidizing them. It means basically, they're not paying their full share. Sometimes that may mean, you know, that taxes have to go up or less services are provided," Holland explained.
Holland said that is why he has hired an outside firm to double check his records, and then compare them with records from outside of Florida. You cannot claim dual homestead -- even if the second property is out of state.
"They'll find the ones that we can't find," said Holland. "They'll research all the states where other people may have homesteads, where people died outside the state. And, we are predicting probably anywhere from 1,900 to 2,000 additional taxpayers that are probably in noncompliance."
Those results are just now coming back, and Holland has received from the outside firm about 300 potential cases. His office will be filing liens on those homes in the near future.
As we mentioned, in 2016, Holland said his office filed more than $3 million in liens. His goal for 2017 is to top $5 million.
It's important to note, the deadline to file for a new homestead exemption is March 1. You're entitled to it if you have made a property your permanent home as of Jan 1, 2017.
If you already have a homestead exemption, it renews automatically, so you don't have re-file or make any changes -- unless you move.