FERNANDINA BEACH, Fla. – Homeowners in Nassau County who receive a homestead exemption are encouraged to make sure they qualify -- or be prepared to pay hefty penalties.
The county property appraiser's office is cracking down on tax fraud by auditing property tax rolls, and it's prepared to punish those who are caught breaking the rules.
With a growing number of homes popping up along the Fernandina Beach coast, officials have seen a jump in new homestead exemption applications.
A homestead exemption allows a homeowner to save up to $50,000 in taxable value, but vacation homes and rental properties aren't eligible for the exemption -- only the homeowner's primary residence.
"There's a lot of homes that people don't live in out here,” said John Adams, who has owned his Fernandina Beach home for years and benefits from a homestead exemption as a permanent resident.
Applying for a homestead exemption on a vacation or rental property that the homeowner doesn't live in is tax fraud.
"You give people a chance to cheat, and they will,” Adams said. “It's not fair.”
To weed out tax fraud from those improperly claiming a homestead exemption, Nassau County is partnering with a third-party firm to conduct audits on properties.
Homeowners caught getting improper exemptions will have to pay up to 10 years in back taxes, plus an additional 50 percent of that total as a penalty, with another 15 percent interest on top, which can add up.
In a recent case, the county collected $124,000 in back taxes from a property owner on South Fletcher Avenue.
The county currently has roughly 22,000 homestead exemptions.
Last year, 400 of them were found to be questionable by the Property Appraiser's Office.
About 2,000 applications for new homestead exemptions have been filed this year, which is more than usual, and the county is finalizing a contract with the third-party firm to help find any violators.
A portion of the penalties paid will go toward paying the firm.
Next year, a new constitutional amendment on the ballot would increase the amount for homestead exemptions.
Nassau County officials said that will attract more homeowners to apply, which is why they are working to get ahead of it and cracking down on violators now.
Duval and St. Johns counties are also pushing to expose tax fraud when it comes to homestead exemptions.