TAMPA – Hillsborough County Property Appraiser Bob Henriquez says he wants to protect homeowners and home buyers by creating a tracking system for sinkhole inspections and repairs.
Now, no public record is kept when homeowners hire a company to investigate whether their property has a sinkhole. That can hurt the homeowner if the investigator is not qualified or hurt potential buyers later if the owner just covers up the evidence, such as cracks in the walls, but doesn’t fix the sinkhole.
Henriquez wants the county commission to pass an ordinance, similar to those in place in Hernando and Pasco counties, that would require a sinkhole investigator to obtain a permit. This process helps ensure that a licensed geologist or engineer is doing the job because his name will be on the document.
If the investigator finds there is a sinkhole and the homeowner hires someone to fix it, a final report on remediation work would be filed. Often, the same company does the investigation and repair, Henriquez said.
People shopping for a home will be able to check records on the property appraiser’s website for sinkholes and whether they were fixed. It’s also valuable information for lenders.
“The idea is to create a start-to-finish tracking method,” Henriquez said.
The permitting will also help the property appraiser make accurate valuations. Under current policy, homeowners who can document a sinkhole on their property can get a new valuation that will lower their property tax bill.
They are supposed to notify the property appraiser’s office if they eventually fix the sinkhole, but in many cases they don’t. That means property is undervalued and the county loses tax money.
Since the property appraiser’s office started tracking sinkholes about 13 years ago, 1,266 cases have been reported. Of those, 619 property owners provided proof that repairs were made and the property was re-evaluated.
That leaves 619 properties that either were not repaired or did not report remediation,for an estimated loss in taxable property value of $49.1 million.
“As it stands now, there is really no way to completely track how someone deals with the presence of a sinkhole on their property,” Henriquez said.
Pasco and Hernando counties passed their ordinances several years ago as sinkholes spread. Ron Pianta, assistant county administrator in Pasco, said the goals are roughly the same as Henriquez is trying to achieve.
“One, we wanted to make sure the people doing the investigation had the proper credentials,” Pianta said. “Two, we wanted to make sure if there was a claim and there was an investigation and some remediation, we were able to track that and require the contractor to come in and get permits.”
Pianta said now the Pasco building department can coordinate with the property appraiser’s office and make sure homes that had sinkhole repairs are valued properly for tax purposes.
Pasco Property Appraiser Mike Wells said it was his idea to get an ordinance passed so he could more accurately value homes with sinkholes.
“Up until then we had no idea where the sinkholes were and what was being done with them,” Wells said. “Now we have a pretty good archive of the ones that had repairs done on them. It’s an effective process.”
Henriquez spoke to county commissioners at their Wednesday meeting and they voted to have the county attorney draw up an ordinance modeled on Pasco and Hernando’s. Commissioner Al Higginbotham put the item agenda, having heard Henriquez speak about the issue at candidate forums last year when they were both running for office.
Higginbotham, a Republican, saw an opportunity for bipartisanship and offered to help the Democratic property appraiser get the item on the commission agenda. Higginbotham said the ordinance will be a positive step for homeowners and mortgage lenders.
“You’ve got adequate disclosure,” Higginbotham said. “Sure, someone can figure out a way to work the system like they do with every law we have on the books, but this is an additional safeguard.”