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Standoff Holds Up Property Appraiser's Office Transition

MIAMI (CBS4) - Three months after their election, outgoing property appraiser Pedro Garcia and his replacement Carlos Lopez-Cantera are still at odds.

"Unfortunately, I have not had even the permission to even enter the office or speak to any employees except for one," Lopez-Cantera told CBS4.

Cantera had been hoping for some kind of transition period to lead the 370 employee office. Instead though he is locked out until January.

"I can't guess at what the current property appraiser is thinking. Elections are tough. Losing election is very tough," Cantera said.

Across town, CBS4 found Pedro Garcia behind a pile of paperwork on his desk. CBS4's David Sutta asked him does this have to do with losing the election.

"No. This has to do with how busy we are," Garcia responded. "I provide my right hand man to discuss anything he wants. And I don't see why he's crying now. If he's crying; I can send him a box of Kleenex."

If the word childish comes to mind, the blog Eye on Miami has gone to great length to demonstrate it. The site features a picture of a baby with Garcia's face, who's 75, attached to the baby body.

Garcia is embracing it as his new phone background. He proudly shows it off and then tells us Cantera is the child.

"He's going to have to mature a little bit more," Garcia said. "Not acting like a child. That anything he wants he has to be provided."

Cantera is eager to get to work. In fact, next week he plans to visit the Broward County Property Appraisers office for a few days. The plan is to see their best practices and adapt them for Miami-Dade. He finds it ironic that he's not welcome in his own county.

Already, Cantera wants to implement a host of plans including streamlining homestead exemption to an online process. Cantera told CBS4 he planned to make the department more customer friendly.

The lobby is going to be retrofitted to look more like a bank lobby with lots of desks. Visitors will be asked to take a number and then have a face-to-face meeting with someone from the office.

It is quite different from the current office that resembles a sea of cubicles where visitors are kept out. As soon as they step off the elevator, guests are greeted by a counter and cameras.

One of Cantera's most radical ideas he plans to implement will reshape property value appeals. Currently, the process involves an 18-month wait in which property owners must pay their taxes, then appeal.

Cantera wants to put their appraisals online by April instead of August. The move would allow anyone who takes issue with the valuation to go directly to the property appraiser to make an appeal one-on-one with his office.

Cantera told us the desk clerks will have the ability to lower/raise values based on your argument. If the change reaches above a certain level, a supervisor would have to approve. The new policy would offer residents direct, almost immediate corrections, as opposed to the current one to two year process. Cantera explained it is just one of his policies his office will lean towards to becoming more customer oriented and fair.

A third plan Cantera wants to implement will tackle the longtime massive homestead exemption fraud in Miami-Dade.

Currently, Florida homeowners enjoy discounts and limited raises in property taxes due to state statutes. But for many years, thousands of residents have abused the privilege using the exemption on second homes and rental properties.

After the county commission leaned on Garcia last year to address it, he's amped up investigations. This year he estimates they'll recapture some $34 million in fraud. That's more than the county had collected in the last decade. Cantera plans to bring on a department head to drive even more investigations.

Cantera will make an announcement of who will head his fraud unit after he is in office. If only he could get there.

"Rather than sitting with you here today, although I like spending time with you David, I'd like to be sitting with him and working with him," Cantera told Sutta.

When pressed, Garcia was adamant about keeping Cantera out.

"No. He's not allowed to walk in here because we have a lot of people working in here," Garcia said. "We have a lot of private information, Social Security etc. I'm not allowing anybody to walk in here. I'm sorry. He will be the property appraiser January 7."

Garcia went on to say he's not afraid of anything; that's he's just too busy to deal with his replacement.

"If he expects me to teach him, I'm sorry I don't have the time," said Garcia.

He may have taught Cantera a lesson by accident though...For whoever one day replaces him.

"Whoever that is can count on me cooperating with them," Cantera said.

Garcia suggested he may let his replacement in sometime toward the end of the month. "You could call it a Christmas present," he quipped.

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