State Rep. Mike Hill said the investigation of his claim to homestead tax exemption has ended without an allegation of wrongdoing.
Hill told an audience of three dozen at a meeting of the Santa Rosa Republican Women on Tuesday that Escambia County Appraiser Chris Jones will soon make public his findings that clear Hill of an anonymous telephone tip that challenged the $50,000 tax break on his Pensacola house at the same time he was renting a condominium on Pensacola Beach.
The tip came last week during the home stretch of a heated election campaign for a Northwest Florida Senate seat that pits Hill against fellow Republican State Rep. Doug Broxson.
As previously reported, the Florida Property Appraiser’s Association in Tallahassee has told this newspaper that Hill’s exemption appears valid if he only claimed it on one property. Records show Hill claimed the exemption on his Pensacola house, but not on the rented condo.
Previously updated Aug. 22:
Where there’s smoke, there’s fire. But the cloud over State Rep. Mike Hill’s claim to homestead tax exemption is partially fog, even to the agency investigating it.
“I have never used the word ‘fraud,’” said Escambia County Property Appraiser Chris Jones in a phone interview with the Navarre Press last week.
“You can call it an investigation, but to me ‘fraud’ indicates an intent to break the law,” Jones said. “There’s a question about whether the exemption is valid. That doesn’t necessarily mean fraud.”
Losing the exemption could cost Hill about $2,300, which includes unpaid taxes dating back to 2013, a fine and interest. But a finding of fraud by Jones’ office could result in a criminal misdemeanor charge punishable by up to a year in prison and a $5,000 fine, upon conviction.
Jones said an anonymous telephone tip led to the investigation by his agency’s Homestead Fraud Department, which is where all such would-be informants are directed. The caller challenged Hill’s getting a tax break on his Pensacola house at the same time he was renting a condominium on Pensacola Beach.
The tip came just two weeks before Hill faces an Aug. 30 primary election against fellow Republican Doug Broxson in a contentious campaign for the state senate.
“We get 500 or so (tips) a year. We pursue all of them whether it’s a private citizen or a public official,” Jones said.
Still, Jones is checking an assortment of Hill’s personal records. So far, Jones has learned that both Hill’s Florida driver’s license and voter registration list his address at the beach condo. This newspaper has learned that Jones’ staff plans also to check how Hill’s residence is listed on his IRS filings, among other documents.
Hill has acknowledged renting the condo in 2013 to establish residence in Florida House District 2, where he won office that year in a special election after the death of Clay Ford. Hill appears to comply with the Florida law that allows a homestead exemption on only one property, which he claims on the Pensacola house owned jointly by he and his wife, Greta.
Initial report Aug. 19:
For the second time since Mike Hill ran for office in 2013, questions about his part-time residence in a leased condominium on Pensacola Beach have been raised as an election nears.
An anonymous tip to Escambia County Property Appraiser Chris Jones has prompted him to look into Hill’s $50,000 homestead exemption on the house he owns with his wife in Northeast Pensacola.
“I don’t see a problem as long as he doesn’t claim exemptions on two residences,” said Martha Cleaver, executive director at the Florida Association of Property Appraisers in Tallahassee.
Hill claims an exemption only at the Pensacola house. He was criticized in 2013 by his unsuccessful opponent in the Florida House race, Democrat Jeremy Lau, who asserted that Hill sidestepped residence requirements by leasing the condo in District 2. Hill’s Pensacola home is in House District 1.
“We spend time in both homes,” Hill told the Navarre Press. “My residency to serve in the Florida House was certified by the House leadership, and the Homestead Exemption in Pensacola is in full compliance with the law. So in both cases there is absolutely no violation of any rules or any laws.”
Still, Jones will be the final arbiter about the exemption, on which he has promised a decision by Aug. 26.