Missed deadline, big headache for Pensacola Beach residents
Some residents got the bad news this week that they may have to pay property taxesfrom pnj.com 2/7/14. Article by Kimberly Blair
Pensacola Beach leaseholders who are plaintiffs in one of several lawsuits challenging the legality of paying taxes on improvements on their land or on their vacant lot were dealt a blow this week.
Their attorney, Danny Kepner with the Shell, Fleming, Davis & Menge law firm, notified them he missed an important deadline undefined by one week undefined on Dec. 6. The deadline was for refiling the lawsuit that’s been ongoing since 2004.
That caused the 2013 lawsuit to be dismissed.
And plaintiffs who have been withholding paying taxes because of the lawsuit must pay their 2013 taxes by the end of the business day on March 31, leaving some leaseholders scrambling to each come up with $2,000 or more by the deadline.
“I made a mistake,” Kepner said. “We know we have a 60-day deadline from the day the property appraiser certifies the tax roll. It’s a requirement of the law we met nine straight years.”
Kepner explained that late last year he looked at the date on a website, noted the date and was off by one week, causing him to file the lawsuit on Dec. 13.
He’s strongly encouraging his clients to pay their taxes so as to not jeopardize claims in previous lawsuits.
Kepner’s law firm is one of several representing residential and commercial beach leaseholders contesting the taxes that Escambia County Property Appraiser Chris Jones is assessing on the improvements on their leased property or on the land.
The firm represents the largest group of plaintiffs who hold leases on 2,147 properties as of 2012, Escambia County Tax Collector Janet Holley said.
Plaintiffs drop off and sign on to the lawsuit each year, so it’s unclear exactly how many would have been part of the 2013 lawsuit had it not been dismissed, Kepner said.
His office sent letters about the mistake to leaseholders of roughly 2,007 pieces of beach property.
But based on 2012 records, Holley said, of the 2,147 properties, 554 leaseholders withheld payment of their taxes and 1,593 paid.
The value of the unpaid taxes is $2.1 million, she said. Taxes paid by plaintiffs totaled $5.4 million.
Kepner said he also missed the deadline on another 97 undeveloped properties that are part of a lawsuit filed in 2011.
Of those, $110,000 worth of taxes was not paid on 65 vacant lots and $229,000 worth of taxes was paid on 32 vacant lots in 2012, Holley said.
Jim Cox, who recently moved from Pensacola Beach, has fully paid his taxes on the primary residence and several investment properties he sold on the beach in 2013.
He has been a client of Kepner’s in the taxation lawsuits since 2004.
He pointed out that the full impact of the missed deadline won’t be known until the Florida Supreme Court rules on the beach tax issue.
The ruling is expected any day.
“If the Supreme Court rules either the land or the improvements are not subject to taxes, that will have an impact on the people,” he said.
Such a ruling could pave the way for people who are part of lawsuits and paid taxes between 2004 and 2013 to receive refunds, depending on what the judges decide, Cox said.
But none of Kepner’s clients are qualified for refunds for their 2013 taxes.
And more troubling, people who miss the March 31 deadline for paying their 2013 taxes will suffer the greatest losses.
They will be dismissed from all lawsuits they’ve been party to dating back to 2004.
“If the Supreme Court rules in favor of leaseholders (not upholding taxation) they will have lost their right to recoup their taxes,” Cox said.
Terry Preston, president of Pensacola Beach Advocates, said she and most people she knows have been paying their taxes to avoid a 12 percent annual fee that will be tacked on to back taxes should the Supreme Court uphold taxation.
She described the law firm’s mistake is a tragedy.
“We’ve had such good service from them, and they’ve been right on top of things,” she said. “It’s too bad.”
Cox is worried Kepner’s mistake could lead to malpractice lawsuits.
“Me personally, my heart goes out to him,” Cox said. “He’s been very good about being upfront and taking the blame. He’s a good soldier. I feel bad for him because he’s fought this for nine years, and because of a clerical error, if the Supreme Court rules the land and improvements are not taxable, some people will suffer.”
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