During commissioners’ comments at the conclusion of the regular meeting on October 26, 2021, Commissioner Steve Champion asked the legal department to look into homestead exemptions that are claimed by low-income seniors. Champion said that he approves of the exemptions, however, believes they should be asset-based and not income-based.
The ordinance providing the exemptions is a Hernando County ordinance, that is governed by State law, which reads in part, “Florida statute § 196.075(2) provides in pertinent part that “[i]n accordance with section 6(d), Article VII of the State Constitution, the board of county commissioners of any county … may adopt an ordinance to allow either or both of the following additional homestead exemptions:
(a) Up to $50,000 for a person who has the legal or equitable title to real estate
and maintains thereon the permanent residence of the owner, who has attained age 65,
and whose household income does not exceed $20,000.
(b) An exemption equal to the assessed value of the property to an owner who has title to real estate in Florida with a just value less than $250,000, as determined in the first tax year that the owner applies and is eligible for the exemption, and who has maintained permanent residence on the property for at least 25 years, is 65 or older, and whose household income does not exceed the household income limitation.
“You can be a multi-millionaire, but pay no taxes because you’re ‘low-income’.” Champion said, referring to homeowners who have significant assets and savings, but little to no income in the form of social security benefits or wages.
Champion went on to say during this meeting, “I’m not out to punish seniors … the more I look into this, the more I’m concerned with it.”
Commissioner John Allocco added that he is aware of two homes that he termed “prime real estate” that have no taxes paid on them because the income of the homeowners qualifies them as low-income. “We want to make sure (the exemptions) are being used properly.”
On November 16, 2021, County Attorney Jon Jouben explained that the BOCC has no authority to change the ordinance applying to the maximum income that qualifies a senior citizen as “low income.” The state statute defines a “senior citizen” as one who is age 65 and older, and “low income” as $20,000 per year. The exemptions themselves can be repealed because they are a county ordinance, but the board chose not to do that at this time.
Commissioner Steve Champion said, “I have a problem with this because it’s just the county and not the state. The other thing is that there are people out there bragging that they sold their million-dollar house in New York, moved to Hernando County, they only have their social security (income), but they have a million dollars in the bank, but they claim ‘low-income senior,’ they don’t pay any taxes … to me, there’s something wrong with it. There has to be a means test or something. If you’re going to have this because if you have the means, you shouldn’t get the low-income exemption.”
Champion added, “I’m leery about anything that is an exemption (from the county) that the state doesn’t have.”
Commissioner John Allocco countered and added, “My concern is that there are some shysters out there. However, there are some legitimate people who moved here and literally live paycheck to paycheck … if there’s no way to actually determine someone’s net worth, then we are going to injure a lot more people than we get rid of shysters…”
Champion reiterated his earlier example and to Allocco’s point, said, “It needs to be fair.”