FDLE Conducting Preliminary Felony Investigation Against Property Appraiser Rick Barnett

By: Heather Waliga Email
By: Heather Waliga Email

We have more information on FDLE’s preliminary felony investigation involving Bay County Property Appraiser Rick Barnett.

An anonymous complaint that prompted the case, accuses Barnett of lowering property assessment values for some of the county's influential people.

We've obtained some of the public tax records and found assessment reductions totaling $52 million dollars for just two individuals and their companies.

The anonymous complaint sent to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement accuses Bay County Property Appraiser Rick Barnett of giving substantial tax breaks to several of the county's elite.

Some of the documents we've been able to gather would seem to indicate some substantial reductions.

Assessments for local Developer Charles Faircloth dropped $30 million dollars.

Some of Charlie Hilton’s property assessments dropped $22 million.

Both Hilton and Faircloth say they legally asked Barnett for their property assessment to be reviewed and the values adjusted.

Faircloth's assistant sent us the following statement:

"Mr. Faircloth did, indeed, request adjustments to the valuation of several parcels he owns directly or through corporations or partnerships in which he holds and interest. He believed then and still believes that errors were made by the Property Appraiser's Office in their approach to valuation. He does not believe that he was given special treatment."

Hilton says his staff requested adjustments after their property assessments went up about 123 percent from 2005.

The request was based on the amount of revenue the properties generate, which is legal under state law.

Property Owner Charlie Hilton said Friday, "I've always been a proponent of less government, but there's nothing that says you can't do whatever the law allows you to do and get the best deal, but I certainly didn't get a deal."

Even with the adjustments, Hilton says he still paid more in property taxes in 2006, than he did in 2005.

He also says the adjustment request resulted in higher assessments for some of his land.

"Holiday Inn on the beach went up from what it'd been valued at, and most of the others went down," says Hilton.

Some of the other land owners mentioned in the anonymous complaint would not agree to talk to us, while others were unavailable.

The complaint itself is also generating controversy.

A former Property Appraiser's Office employee, who ran against Barnett in 2004, says Barnett is accusing him of filing the complaint, and that he's being wrongfully accused.

Dale Hartzog issued a statement saying he didn't contact FDLE and if he had, he would have proudly attached his name to it.

He says Barnett owes him a public apology. However, Barnett isn't talking, at least not until the FDLE completes its inquiry.

Deputy Appraiser Dan Sowell did issue a statement saying all of the property value adjustments were justified.


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