Hiller: Investigation needed after property's value drops from $3 million to $237

Collier County Commissioner Georgia Hiller is calling for an investigation into why an East Naples commercial property once appraised for $3.4 million is now valued at $237.

Hiller emailed four officials from the Collier County Sheriff's Office and State Attorney's Office on Wednesday, asking for an investigation into the appraisal process to confirm that "properties are not being intentionally undervalued, resulting in lower taxes to the county."

The Sheriff's Office has received the email and is assessing it, a spokeswoman said.

Collier County Property Appraiser Abe Skinner has defended the lowered value, and an independent consultant hired by the Daily News found the appraisal process was "appropriate in this situation."

A political opponent of Skinner's, however, has criticized the process and the consultant's findings.

Hiller said she wasn't judging whether the appraisal was correct. Rather, she was moved to ask for a review by a mid-April article published by the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, which questioned whether a Collier County appraiser used his position to make a favorable appraisal for a past business associate.

"Someone needs to look into it," Hiller said. "It's not my job to investigate wrongdoing, but if something comes to my attention that involves county revenues, expenditures or assets, then I have to raise a question."

The parcel, a parking lot located in the Berkshire Commons shopping center near Santa Barbara Boulevard and Radio Road, was valued at $3.4 million in 2008, $3 million in 2009 and $1.3 million in 2010. Then, in 2011, Chief Deputy Property Appraiser Julian Stokes reviewed the parcel and valued it at $237, writing that it was being "improperly assessed."

Stokes said he dropped the value of the property because the parcel can only be used as a parking lot for several businesses in the area.

"You cannot build anything on it," he said. "It's an anomaly, if you will."

Skinner said he and the Property Appraiser's Office's lawyers have reviewed Stokes' appraisal, finding no errors. Previous appraisals of the property likely factored in the potential for the land, which now can only be used as a parking lot and has minimal market value, Skinner said.

"When we got all the information on what could be done or not be done, that changed the outlook of the value," Skinner said.

But Kevin Lilly, a former employee at the Property Appraiser's Office who is running against the incumbent Skinner this year, said the parcel's owner, William Higgs, should have taken the issue to the office's Value Adjustment Board, rather than Stokes being involved. Stokes performed private appraisals for Higgs before joining the office in May 2010.

"For them to say it's been wrong all these years is kind of hard to believe," Lilly said.

Stokes said the Value Adjustment Board wasn't needed because Higgs' lawyer presented evidence supporting the lower appraisal. Outside lawyers contacted by the office verified the lower value, Stokes said.

"In the majority of those instances, if we can resolve an issue prior to it going to the Value Adjustment Board, we do so," Stokes said.

Gerald Hendry, a Fort Myers-based real estate appraiser, was hired by the Daily News to review public documents related to the appraisal and analyze Stokes' valuation process. In a written report, Hendry found the $237 appraisal "appears justified."

"It appears to be a reasonable approach," Hendry said in an interview. "I've run it by a few other folks too and it seems to make sense."

Hendry didn't assess the value of the property, and he didn't know what caused the drastic drop. He speculated that appraisers were previously factoring in the value of adjoining properties, which include a Publix, Walgreens, Starbucks and several other stores, as well as its potential beyond a parking lot.

"It looked like historically that they were treating it as a development parcel," Hendry said, adding that the parking lot has "no commercial developmental potential."

Lilly, who was provided with a copy of Hendry's report, challenged the findings, saying they were based largely on how Stokes presented his appraisal findings.

"The consultant is being misled by the person who made the reduction in the first place," Lilly said.

Stokes, who also received the report, backed its findings.

"I take issue with someone who has a political agenda continually discrediting people that are more qualified to form an objective and independent opinion," Stokes said. "This report does Mr. Lilly no good."

Skinner said the debate over the appraisal is politically motivated, and he defended Stokes' integrity.

"I respect him," he said. "He has all of these credentials. I never had a chief deputy before Julian."

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