Estates woman overbilled for Collier property taxes can’t get a full refund

Because of a property appraiser's error, Golden Gate Estates resident Joanne Affleck Aprile had been paying too much in property taxes since she bought her Golden Gate house in 1998. In 2010 she noticed the problem, but not before losing nearly $8,000 to the county and her insurance agency, which used county records to bill her. Lexey Swall/Staff

Photo by LEXEY SWALL // Buy this photo

Because of a property appraiser's error, Golden Gate Estates resident Joanne Affleck Aprile had been paying too much in property taxes since she bought her Golden Gate house in 1998. In 2010 she noticed the problem, but not before losing nearly $8,000 to the county and her insurance agency, which used county records to bill her. Lexey Swall/Staff

Because of a property appraiser's error, Golden Gate Estates resident Joanne Affleck Aprile had been paying too much in property taxes since she bought her Golden Gate house in 1998. In 2010 she noticed the problem, but not before losing nearly $8,000 to the county and her insurance agency, which used county records to bill her. Lexey Swall/Staff

Photo by LEXEY SWALL // Buy this photo

Because of a property appraiser's error, Golden Gate Estates resident Joanne Affleck Aprile had been paying too much in property taxes since she bought her Golden Gate house in 1998. In 2010 she noticed the problem, but not before losing nearly $8,000 to the county and her insurance agency, which used county records to bill her. Lexey Swall/Staff

— The sharply pitched roof on Joanne Affleck Aprile’s house reminds her of home, up North, where slanted shingles cast off Massachusetts snow.

But the steep roof here costs her space on the second floor, making it much smaller than the first — something a Collier County property appraiser failed to indicate when the house was built, incorrectly reporting 589 extra square feet. Ultimately, it overvalued the property and cost Aprile nearly $8,000 over 12 years, she estimates.

County staff corrected the problem last year but only refunded her for three years of taxes, hampered by a state law limiting the length of time for refund claims. Her insurance company, which she said used the appraiser’s records, refunded her for a single year of overpayments.

“Something just didn’t sit right,” Aprile said of the many times she overpaid.

When she called the county staff in 2000, two years after she bought the house, officials assured her the appraisal was correct, she said.

Government officials say cases like this are rare, and taxpayer advocates acknowledge the necessity of a statute of limitations, saying refunds on old taxes are paid for by current taxpayers.

The example nonetheless raises questions about whether citizens are protected from bearing the cost of government error, even in cases where officials admit their mistakes.

Abe Skinner on 'One on One'

Abe Skinner on 'One on One'

“I always tell people, if you find that something’s wrong with the appraisal of your property, let us know,” said Abe Skinner, Collier County’s property appraiser.

“I always tell people, if you find that something’s wrong with the appraisal of your property, let us know,” said Abe Skinner, Collier County’s property appraiser.

Evaluating 250,000 parcels every year, “we do make mistakes,” he said.

Safeguarding against human error can be impossible, and giving residents the resources to check for themselves can be expensive or time-consuming for the government. Square footage isn’t listed on each tax bill, and Aprile only found the appraiser’s mistake after discovering a sketch of her floor plan on the county property appraiser’s website.

Some rural counties cannot afford to build online databases, said Robert Weissert, general counsel and vice president for research at the nonpartisan Florida TaxWatch, which advocates for tax efficiency.

He said taxpayer protections must be weighed against spending.

“Something like this is tough,” Weissert said. “Every time a taxpayer is overcharged, that isn’t fair, and certainly that should be made right.”

But, he said, tax laws that are too generous could pave the way for correcting “past injustices with current people’s money.”

Stephen Keller, an attorney for the Florida Department of Revenue, said that “as with any law that provides for a remedy, there are associated time limits.”

He said residents should confer with their local tax assessors annually, and fair tax advocates recommend reviewing copies of appraisal reports to guard against wrong information.

Because of a property appraiser's error, Golden Gate Estates resident Joanne Affleck Aprile had been paying too much in property taxes since she bought her Golden Gate house in 1998. In 2010 she noticed the problem, but not before losing nearly $8,000 to the county and her insurance agency, which used county records to bill her. Lexey Swall/Staff

Photo by LEXEY SWALL // Buy this photo

Because of a property appraiser's error, Golden Gate Estates resident Joanne Affleck Aprile had been paying too much in property taxes since she bought her Golden Gate house in 1998. In 2010 she noticed the problem, but not before losing nearly $8,000 to the county and her insurance agency, which used county records to bill her. Lexey Swall/Staff

“Personally, I think we should be able to go all the way back” and refund for every year, Skinner said, but “we’ve got to follow the law.”

In February 2010, a county assessor visited Aprile’s house, just east of Golden Gate, at her request. She said it didn’t take him long to see the problem.

“He came out with his tape measure and walked around upstairs and said, ‘Oh, my goodness, you’re right,’” Aprile said.

That year, her property’s assessed value dropped nearly $19,000, reflecting the correction. The county cut her a check for $425.14 — a fraction of the roughly $2,300 she figures she overpaid — and adjusted her 2009 tax bill.

She said her insurance company, Insurance and Risk Management Services, refused to refund more than $5,000 in overpayments. Company officials wouldn’t immediately comment.

“It’s just really unfortunate,” Aprile said. “But moving forward, I wanted people to be aware of it.”

__ Connect with Ben Wolford at http://www.naplesnews.com/staff/ben-wolford.

© 2011 marconews.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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