Jasmine Kripalani journalist

26Jun/08Off

Homestead Cheats

Published: Miami Herald
Date: June 26, 2008
Abstract: Through the years, tens of thousands of property owners in Broward and Miami-Dade counties have made fraudulent homestead exemption claims.

As local governments slash budgets with the downturn in the real estate market, Broward and Miami-Dade counties are more aggressively pursuing and punishing people who make fraudulent claims when it comes to homestead exemptions. 

Steven Grundt was among those who got caught, and he's not remorseful. 

Grundt recently rented out his Cooper City home without telling the Broward County Property Appraiser's office to remove his homestead tax benefit, as required by law. 

"I figured I would try to get away with it," said Grundt, 54, who traded his Broward digs for Bloomfield, Conn., 18 months ago. 

Like tens of thousands of South Floridians who have filed fraudulent claims through the years, Grundt hoped to save a few hundred dollars. 

But his attempt to evade taxes will cost him $600 this year and potentially more in future years. The reason: losing his homestead exemption means he won't be protected from future tax hikes. 

Grundt earns $42,000 making parts for a welding equipment company and lives with his wife in Connecticut. 

"Quite frankly, they're charging way too much for property taxes," Grundt said. 

Florida property owners who live in their homes qualify for a $25,000 reduction from their assessed property value, known as a homestead exemption. The Depression-era policy helped people who couldn't afford property taxes keep their homes. 

But the real savings comes from the voter-approved Save Our Homes law passed in 1992. It prevents assessed values in homesteaded properties from increasing by more than 3 percent a year. 

In 2007, 446,584 property owners in Miami-Dade claimed a homestead exemption, and 433,258 did so in Broward. 

And sifting for fraudulent ones requires footwork. 

Rhonda Bryant is one of nine investigators for the Broward County Property Appraiser's Department of Professional Standards and Compliance. 

To verify that the person claiming the homestead exemption lives there, Bryant drives to flagged properties in a county vehicle -- a four-door Chevrolet Trailblazer with fewer than 30,000 miles. 

On a recent afternoon, her first stop was at a home in the 1200 block of Northeast Fifth Avenue in Fort Lauderdale. 

The property's homestead exemption was questioned after the appraiser's office received several letters marked "Return to Sender." 

The process usually begins when letters are returned or through anonymous tips. 

"At least 50 percent comes from the public's eyes," Bryant said while inspecting the property. "They're getting fed up with people getting away with it. They look up their property and they're looking at all their neighbors." 

As soon as she pulled up, Bryant knew the property owner, would not qualify for a future exemption. 

A "For Sale" sign was posted on the corner of the picket fence. Windows were covered with plywood. 

Bryant strolled past a discarded pink desk missing three drawers in the driveway and an open 16-ounce can of Schlitz Malt Liquor on a window ledge. 

The only homesteader appeared to be a black cat that ran away as soon as Bryant approached the front door. 

"This homestead is definitely getting removed," she said. 

Homeowner Jerry Olah faces no penalties because Bryant couldn't prove that he had not lived there in 2007. But he will have to pay the full amount on his 2008 tax bill next year, estimated at $4,300. 

Olah, who has a post office box address in Warrensburg, Mo., could not be reached for comment. 

In Miami-Dade, fraudulent homestead claims reached their peak in 2007 with more than $2.7 million back taxes collected from 325 properties. 

The amount, however, reflects homes that may have had a lien placed on their properties previous years but only recently paid back what they owed, said Michael Postell, a senior property appraiser supervisor for the Miami-Dade office. 

RECORD COLLECTIONS 

That same year, Broward County collected its highest amount: $4.6 million in back taxes from 5,183 property owners who fraudulently claimed a tax benefit. 

Miami-Dade's cases are lower because they have three fewer investigators than the Broward appraiser's office, Postell said. 

As Bryant drove to the next property, she talked about those who have been caught through the years. They have included Michelle Ledgister, a former National Institutes of Health employee, who threatened to send them anthrax. 

On June 8, 2005, investigators at the Broward County Property Appraisers office discovered Ledgister lived in Maryland. She had been renting out her Parkland home so investigators removed her tax benefit. 

On July 28, 2005, Ledgister left a threatening voice mail message. 

"I must commend your skillful sleuths in knowing where the main campus of NIH is located," she said. "But what they didn't tell you is that NIH is located where infectious agents are and you guys now have anthrax spores once again, so do be careful. Toodles." 

Those 45 recorded words led to her serving 90 days of house arrest and reporting to a probation officer for two years. 

During her federal sentencing hearing, Ledgister expressed regret, according to The Associated Press. 

"I'm terribly sorry for what I've done," Ledgister told a judge. 

Ledgister's case is extreme. Most property owners who are caught don't end up before a judge. 

Typically, a tax lien is placed on an owner's property. The owner also faces a fine: 50 percent of the unpaid taxes for each year and interest at 15 percent per year. TALL TALES 

But some who have gotten caught have included attorneys and elected officials. 

Consider a 2006 case involving two attorneys in Boca Raton. Diana Cuervo-Parks, 55, applied for a homestead exemption on her Highland Beach condominium as a single woman, property records show. 

Doing so saved her $6,040.20 in 2006. But it was a fraudulent claim, an investigation by the Broward County Property Appraiser's Office concluded. 

Cuervo-Parks is married and already received a homestead exemption for a property she and her husband Steven Parks, 49, own in Cooper City. A typed, anonymous letter sent to the appraiser's office turned the couple's savings into penalties. 

They recently paid $10,483.21 in taxes and fees because they failed to report their Cooper City exemption. 

Parks, a real estate lawyer, said it was an error. 

"I don't want to try this in the court of public opinion," Parks said. "Errors were made, and they were taken care of." 

But the case with the largest owed in back taxes involved a former executive and his politician wife. 

William Lobeck, the former CEO of Vanguard Car Rental and his wife Kathryn Taylor, the mayor of Tulsa, Okla., recently paid about $133,000 in back taxes, said Ron Cacciatore, who leads the investigative arm of the Broward County property appraiser's office. 

The couple tried to claim a homestead exemption on their $3.3 million Fort Lauderdale home in 2006. 

But an investigation found the couple already had a homestead exemption on their Tulsa property. 

The couple -- who have since filed a lawsuit to recover their back taxes -- could not be reached for comment. 

Cacciatore said going after fraudulent filers pays off. 

"That kind of money going back to the city could help pay for an ambulance or a teacher's salary," he said.

 

17Mar/03Off

Landfill Tales

Published: The Miami Herald
Date: Monday, March 17, 2003

Ambrose Mitchell fastens his seat belt and sets in motion an 85,000-pound bulldozer whose silver-spike wheels rip apart unwanted objects.

From record players to wedding photos. From wooden door frames to fans.

Mitchell's job site is the county landfill.

When he first started in 1990, the 2-year-old landfill was at ground level. Mitchell can track his 13-year career based on layers of trash, which now reach 75 feet - as tall as a five- or six-story building.

Mitchell shifts forward. Metal spikes rip through a floral-patterned mattress exposing its beige padding. Mitchell's machine makes an old record player bend, and a white, wiry fan crack.

Crush. Crash. Crush. Crash.

He shifts into reverse, compacting these objects until they are unrecognizable.

``It's sad to see some good things go. Furniture. Beautiful plates. Pictures. Paintings. Someone's wedding photo,'' Mitchell said. ``What gets me is that parents save things and their children throw everything away. In most places, heirlooms are passed on . . . I've taught my children to save something for tomorrow. Kids don't want what their parents had.''

Mitchell grew up in the mountainous island nation of Grenada. He's driven a double-decker bus for a living in London. Later, he moved to New York and found work as a sanitation worker.

In 1990, he moved to South Florida and worked as a maintenance man for the county.

Mitchell and a crew of 26 get paid $10 to $20 an hour to crush trash.

About 188 tons of trash gets reduced to bits daily at the Broward County Landfill, which is west of the women's prison on Sheridan Street and Southwest 205th Avenue.

It is the only county-run landfill and operates on a $2.5 million budget that mostly comes from fees, not taxpayers, said Bruce Jones, landfill operator.

Most household trash sent to the waste-energy plant is burned.

They accept tires, yard and tree clippings, old sofas, electronics, and appliances. Nothing flammable, though.

Still, fires do happen. On Friday morning, while garbage was being crushed, fire billowed from the the mound. There were no injuries, but it may never be known what caused it, Jones said.

``It could be something was brought in that was already smoldering,'' Jones said.

The county landfill won't accept bulk waste if it comes from these cities: Pembroke Pines, Dania Beach, Hallandale Beach, Pompano Beach and Parkland because these cities do not have contracts with the county.

But there's a loophole.

``We work on the honor system,'' Jones said. People sometimes lie about where the trash comes from.

Jones said his job is one few respect. But, he added, it's a job that tells a story about what we value.

``What we throw away is a reflection of society,'' Jones said. ``It's a shame. Nowadays people throw things away because the craftsmanship isn't as good. It's easier and cheaper to throw away. But what do I know? I'm just a landfill operator. I'm not a philosopher.''

On a recent morning, Mike Montagne, a yacht captain in Weston, felt no ties to his old college radio, which once blared his favorite tunes from the 1970s - from the Eagles' Hotel California to America's A Horse With No Name.

``Old junk from the attic,'' Montagne said about the load on his SUV - from an old computer monitor to martini glasses and refrigerator drawers. ``You should look at some of the stuff we're keeping.''

Montagne is moving out of Country Isles to a bigger home at the Laguna Springs subdivision, both in Weston.

He paid $2 to Broward County Landfill scale clerk Jane Roch to dump his ``old junk'' into a dumpster.

Every vehicle is weighed - twice. Once when it drives in; then when it drives out. The scale clerks subtract the difference and charge $50 a ton. Individuals who bring household items pay a standard $2 fee because 2,000 pounds could not fit in a compact or SUV, Jones said.

Roch said the scale - which can weigh anything up to 200,000 pounds in 20-pound increments - doesn't weigh only trash. Once, two women from an animal refuge center drove in with a live, caged striped Bengal tiger.

``They wanted to make sure he was gaining weight,'' Roch said.

``He was. He weighed 520 pounds.''

Mornings are the busiest time of the day, when landscapers drive in with trucks containing broken branches, palm fronds and tree cuttings. Two men in an air-conditioning truck brought in a black, leather sofa and an assortment of wood panelings from old doors.

``The tenant left all these things,'' said Isidro Pineda, 43, whose boss asked him to bring it to the landfill.

Jones said people sometimes come back saying they have mistakenly thrown away money.

Jones has had to rummage through the rotten-egg smelling pile of trash looking for it. But he usually comes up empty.

``It happens, occasionally,'' he said.

IF YOU GO

The Broward County Landfill is at 7101 SW 205th Ave. It is open 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday.

Bulk trash from Pembroke Pines, Dania Beach, Hallandale Beach, Pompano Beach and Parkland can be taken to Reuter Recycling of Florida at 20701 Pembroke Rd. in Pembroke Pines. It is open 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday for commercial waste, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. for residential waste; 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturdays and holidays for commercial, and 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. for residential.

Hazardous materials such as latex paint, gasoline, propane bottles or car batteries may be taken to: North Hazardous Waste Collection Center, 2780 N. Powerline Rd., Pompano Beach; South Hazardous Waste Collection Center, 5601 Hallandale Beach Blvd., Hollywood; Central Hazardous Waste, 5490 Reese Rd., Davie.

For more information on hazardous waste, call 954-960-3023.

18Jul/99Off

Kids With Cancer Go To Camp A Week Together For Students Isolated By Disease

Published: Miami Herald Sunday Final Edition
Date: July 18, 1999

Anthony Hernandez, who will enter Coral Reef High School in the fall, has leukemia. In less than three years, he has been hospitalized more than 20 times, many involving stays in the intensive care units.

Classmates at Cutler Ridge Christian Academy, where he just graduated, often flooded him with questions: "When are you going to finish [chemotherapy treatments]?" "How long have you been going through this?

"To which the 14-year-old replied: "I don't know and since Nov. 20, 1996." That's the day he was diagnosed with leukemia - a form of cancer that impairs the production of blood cells.

For the next week, however, no one will quiz Anthony about his problems. He'll be surrounded by kids who understand, because they are fighting similar battles of their own.

For the second consecutive year, he'll attend the American Cancer Society's ROCK (Reaching out to Kids with Cancer) Boggy Creek Gang Camp near Orlando. About 140 cancer patients, ages 7 to 17, are expected.

"The kids at camp, they don't really ask many questions because they've gone through the same thing," Anthony said.But they do share helpful hints.

Sharing support Chantelle Edge, 13, wore a T-shirt that read, "PAIN is temporary, PRIDE is forever" as she waited with about 30 kids from Miami-Dade County for the bus to camp. But as they mingled at the Winn-Dixie Hope Lodge behind the University of Miami's Sylvester Cancer Treatment Center, she shared advice she often shares with new patients: "It will be over someday. Be strong.

"Like Anthony, Chantelle has been undergoing chemotherapy. She had a malignant tumor removed from her brain. Saturday morning, she was just looking forward to swimming in the camp's Olympic-size pool, her favorite activity.

She had already forgotten about the light blue hat she was wearing to cover her temporarily hairless head.Except for nights in the hospital, this week will be the first time she has been away from her parents. She's anything but scared.

"We know more about what we've been through," Chantelle said of being with other kids with cancer.
Many parents hugged and coached their kids on doing the right thing.

Ellie Hernandez reminded her son Anthony to read Alas Babylon. Pat Frank's book is on his summer reading list.

A few minutes later, everyone was waving as the bus left.Boggy Creek is staffed with two pediatric oncologists, two emergency room doctors, a pediatrician, 10 nurses, 42 volunteers from the American Cancer Society and 78 full-time counselors.

The 232-acre camp was founded in 1996, when actor Paul Newman, Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf and the late Gov. Lawton Chiles teamed up with several of Florida's influential families to build a retreat for chronically ill children.

Activities include horseback riding, wood-shop, arts and crafts and paddle boats.

The American Cancer Society's Winn-Dixie Hope Lodge picks up the tab for the summer escapes for the South Florida kids.Before Boggy Creek opened, kids were taken to camps in different parts of Florida. More than 4,000 Florida youth have participated in the program.

As their children left, some parents began releasing tears they have fought to hold back.

In a crackling voice, Diana Vengoechea told of moving to Miami from Colombia two years ago, after her 12-year-old son Edgardo was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor.

"All last night he kept telling me he was afraid," Vengoechea said. "I am also afraid. I know he's in good hands, but I worry."

But not all the goodbyes are painful.

Maya Thornell, spokeswoman for the American Cancer Society, said moms and dads appreciate the time to themselves, and their other children.

"Most parents look forward to it," Thornell said. "It's a time parents can take a break and let their kids be kids."