Crist acts to give property owners hurt by oil spill a break


A day after complaining about the “do-nothing Legislature” that shunned his oil ban plan, Gov. Charlie Crist shot back Wednesday and gave property owners a tool to collect money from BP.

The governor signed an executive order authorizing property appraisers in 26 counties under threat from the oil spill to give property owners an updated assessment on their homes and businesses if they believe they have lost value because of the spill.

Property owners could use the document to file a claim for damages against BP, although they wouldn’t necessarily have their tax bills lowered.

“It is logical to predict that the oil spill will result in declining property values,” Crist said at a news conference. “Businesses and families of the Gulf Coast did nothing to warrant this loss, but they bear the burden of it.”

The governor’s announcement gets ahead of the Florida Legislature. After waiting nearly three months to meet and respond to the oil spill, legislators said they will spend the next month determining what kind of legislation is needed, including how to deal with drops in property values, then return for a September special session.

Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, chairman of the Senate’s select committee dealing with economic issues in the Gulf, called the governor’s order a “better late than never response” but said there are some unanswered questions.

“I’m glad that the governor has gotten the sleep out of his eyes on these economic issues,” he said. “I’m not sure how an individual property owner will be able to take this interim assessment to BP and get satisfaction. Let’s hope that is the case.”

Appraisers from the two counties whose tourist season has been most impacted by the oil disaster — Escambia and Santa Rosa — called on the Legislature to give them the ability to send rebates to property owners.

State law requires property to pay taxes based on the value of their property in January. But in many cases — particularly for hotels and businesses dependent on the beach — their property values have dropped as much as 30 percent since then.

“It appears what the governor has done is have the property appraisers provide some professional assistance to the folks that are impacted by giving them some kind of damage number that they could then take to BP and say they’ve lost money,” said Chris Jones, the Escambia County property appraiser.

But, he added, “It does not provide immediate tax relief in any way.”

The governor cannot authorize property appraisers to reduce anyone’s tax bill and, short of a rebate OK’d by lawmakers, property owners will be expected to pay in full.

With 180,000 properties to assess in Escambia County alone, Jones said his office also “doesn’t have the resources” to provide individual assessment to every property owner and instead may offer mass appraisals.

Jones said he is working with the Department of Revenue on how to advise property owners .

David Johnson, the Seminole County property appraiser and head of the Property Appraisers Association of Florida, said it may be hard to determine how much of the drop in value is attributable to the oil spill and how much to the economy.

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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