Saturday, April 15, 2006


This week, 160,000 City of Miami Beach homestead-exempt property owners received a $200 "dividend" check in the mail.

Unprecedented? Yes.

Lawful? Decidely not.

Looks good to most local voters to see an unsolicited check in the mail for $200, doesn't it? You bet, even if the City Commission spent a few extra cents for the cover letter reminding you who your incumbent Mayor and City Commissioners are (who obviously voted to approve this largesse).

But what about homeowners who don't have homestead exemption? And what about the commercial property owners? Did they get anything back? No. But government decisionmaking is all about figuring out where to draw the lines, who gets included and who gets excluded, after all, isn't it?

Is it being too cynical to point out that the homestead exemption statute expressly cross-refernces the voters' registration statute? Cynical? Who, me?

But let's get to the point. The so-called "dividend" is essentially a tax refund or after-the-fact diminution in the tax rate, made available to only a portion of the population of City of Miami Beach taxpayers. As such, it is illegal.

To their credit, the City is completely upfront about the differential tax rate. Or at least it was when Mayor David Dermer first introduced this feel-good provision during the budget hearings in September 2005. That was the time of the year when every city and county and school board and water managaement district and every other taxing authtority looked at its budget and set its millage, i.e., tax rate for the year. The budget resolution actually specifies the amount of the slight reduction in millage for this select group of taxpayers eligible for the tax refund.

Only trouble with that is that the Florida Constitution mandates a uniform tax rate for each and every taxpayer in the jusrisdiction. Under that standard, it's constitutionally impermissible to levy 24.18 mills against all the property on the City of Miami Beach EXCEPT homestead property, and then effectively apply to those voters--whoops, I mean taxpaers, of course--a smidgen lower millage rate, ginned up in the form of a "dividend."

Well, this raises the specter of the old philosophical exercise, "What if a tree falls in the forest and there is no one there to hear it? Is there still a sound?" This time, the question morphs into, "What if the City issues an unlawful dividend of $200 to each of 160,000 taxpayers and no one complains about it? Is it still a violation?"

Frankly, this is why it's helpful not just to know the law, but know when certain nominal violations may be ignored by local government. This doesnt apply just to property tax. It applies in code enforcement, zoning, traffic enforcement, you name it. That's probably why a local judge once said, "An ounce of experience is worth a pound of law."

Well, that's about enough philosophizing for one blog entry. That's all for now.

Daniel A. Weiss is a former Attorney Special Master for the Miami-Dade County Value Adjustment Board. Mr. Weiss now represents commercial, institutional charitable, commercial, high-end residential, agricultural and municipal taxpayers at VAB proceedings throughout the State of Florida. Mr. Weiss handles both valuation and legal claims.

Mr. Weiss has over 25 years property tax experience. Mr. Weiss represented the Miami-Dade County taxing authorities in litigation and appeals between 1981 and 1995 as a Miami-Dade Assistant County Attorney and has since represented taxpayers in property tax matters.

In Florida Trend magazine’s “Legal Elite” issue, July 2004, Mr. Weiss was selected by his peers as one of the top 30 government lawyers in the State of Florida.

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