ORLANDO, Fla. — In most counties, property appraiser is an election often overlooked, or given little attention.
Orange County, however, is not like most counties.
First elected in 2012, Rick Singh is running for a third term in office. He says he has the proven experience required, while two challengers say Singh’s tenure has been plagued with politics, lawsuits, and scandals.
The three candidates running for the job are:
- Rick Singh, incumbent property appraiser
- Amy Mercado, state representative
- Khalid Muneer, real estate broker
Despite write-in candidates in November, it is likely the winner of the August 18 Democratic Primary will win the job; one that comes with a four-year term and a salary of $172,000.
How the Office Works
The Orange County property appraiser oversees a staff of hundreds and a budget of $18 million.
But, the responsibility is of greater value.
Simply put, the Orange County Property Appraiser’s office is in charge of setting property values, including for residential, commercial, theme parks, and more.
Those property values set property taxes, which then generate revenue for municipal governmental organizations, including Orange County and Orange County Public Schools.
The current adopted budget for Orange County this fiscal year is $4.7 billion. Based on the property values determined by the property appraiser and applying the tax rates set by the Board of County Commissioners, the estimated proceeds are $958.8 million.
The tentative 2020-2021 budget for Orange County Public Schools is $4.1 billion, of which $1.1 billion is generated through the property values, millages, etc.
According to OCPA, as of 2019, there were nearly 500,000 diverse parcels of property in the county, including:
- Theme parks: 48
- Offices: 4,698
- Single-family Residential: 318,142
- Condominium: 42,3222
- Hotels: 297
Singh is quick to point out his achievements in office, an attribute that he says sets him apart from Muneer and Mercado.
“I’m probably one of the only property appraisers walking the face of the Earth that’s appraised $1 trillion,” Singh said. “We returned $1 billion to taxpayers, and we return an average of $1 million to Orange County government for being efficient.”
Muneer and Mercado pointedly dispute that Singh is the only experienced candidate, however.
“I’m not a politician, I’m a businessman,” Muneer said. “I have appraised hundreds of houses, hotels, multifamily complexes in my 23 years in the real estate business.”
Muneer owns Jupiter Properties, Inc. a real estate brokerage company he’s based in Orange County for more than 15 years. That is a point Muneer strikes to push back on, criticism he has not been an Orange County resident, living instead in Flagler County.
“That’s true I’ve been a resident for two years, and I would have loved to move here earlier, but it was due to family circumstances that I had to stay in Palm Coast,” Muneer said. “It was for the sake of my five children so they could continue their education.”
State Representative Amy Mercado said, “I have a blended multinational business background, which spans healthcare, legal, and agricultural industries for several decades.”
Mercado says her mixed resume of lawmaking and business gives her the experience to run OCPA. Mercado’s fulltime work includes serving as director of operations for the National Mango Board, a marketing and research organization overseen by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, with a budget of approximately $15 million.
“I’m running for Orange County property appraiser because the community has lost faith, trust, and respect,” Mercado said.
Disputes and Scandals
Mercado and Muneer say they are challenging Singh because of a series of troubles within OCPA, including costly lawsuits, criminal investigations, and scandals.
“I was troubled a year ago with what was happening in the office,” Muneer said. “I decided somebody needed to stand up and say this is wrong.”
Outside election season, one of Singh’s staunchest opponents is Walt Disney World.
“Quite simply, I am holding big business accountable,” Singh said.
Singh admits his office spent millions of dollars to defend thousands of lawsuits filed in recent years by Disney, Universal, and others.
Plaintiffs range from area theme parks, to resorts, to apartment complexes, to grocery story and retail centers.
The lawsuits contend OCPA overvalue their properties.
Disney alone has sued Singh’s office every year since 2016 in multiple cases representing different property locations.
In 2019, for example, OCPA assessed Disney’s Magic Kingdom at $504 million ($468 million in 2018), Epcot at $539 million ($511 million in 2018), Hollywood Studios at $394 million ($350 million in 2018), and Disney’s Animal Kingdom theme park at $435 million ($429 m in 2018), according to the lawsuit Disney filed.
The center of the dispute is how the properties are assessed.
Singh says his office employs a practice called “The Rushmore Method,” a widely used formula to establish commercial values.
Simply put, “The Rushmore Method” considers more than just bricks and dirt, but considers revenues, location, and other potential value points.
“We contend everything has a value, and we applied the method to be fair and equitable,” Singh said.
Singh argues using the accepted Rushmore Method provides assessments to consider that in times and at places values can increase because of added factors. So, a hotel on Disney property would be a greater value than another hotel simply because the first hotel is on Disney property.
“Under the spirit of when we all pay our fair share, we all pay less, this is the spirit in which we do this,” Singh said.
Singh says his office vigorously defends its practice and will do so in court. Singh said he believes he has become a target of Disney specifically because of his willingness to “hold big business accountable.”
Despite pointing to a state Value Adjustment Board siding with OCPA in most disputes, a circuit judge in July sided with Disney in one of the earliest rulings.
In a case involving Disney’s Yacht and Beach Club, Judge Thomas Turner ruled the Rushmore Method did over-valuate the property.
However, recently the Fifth District Court of Appeals issued a revised opinion, essentially resetting the appraisal process.
In an August 7 opinion, the court pulled back on its June ruling, calling the “Rushmore Method” illegal, and instead leaving room for the process to be used in appraising commercial properties.
However, the court in the latest opinion also set some parameters, limiting, for example, certain tangible company services, such as Fast Pass and Magic bands, from being appraised as value.
“We are pleased with this ruling, which is clearly in our favor,” Singh said in a statement after the ruling. “We are also grateful that the court has clarified its opinion on the Rushmore Method and continue to dispute Disney’s low valuation of their own property. We now return to our work in arriving at a fair and accurate assessment of the resort in accordance with the court’s recommendations and look forward to a resolution of this case.”
While Singh says taxpayers should not be alarmed, Mercado and Muneer say taxpayers should.
“We need to save every dollar we can and stop wasting these hard-earned taxpayer dollars,” Muneer said.
Muneer and Mercado both propose a ‘less aggressive’ approach to the appraisal disputes.
The pair, both running against Singh, said they would prefer negotiating with companies like Disney to avoid costly lawsuits.
Neither Muneer nor Mercado said they believe The Rushmore Method is the appropriate appraisal process to be used.
“They’re using Fast Pass, trying to put value to that. It may have value to the business, for sure no one negates that, but it’s not a property value,” Mercado said. “It’s not part of the building, and it’s not part of the land, so it should [be assessed by] just the dirt and building.”
Both candidates committed to being able to assess major corporations such as Disney fairly and accurately.
Singh maintains he is the candidate to hold big business accountable, and points to a recent campaign of attack ad mailers as proof.
The group “Florida Public Corruption Task Force” is behind recent mailers calling out Singh.
“Rick Singh won’t stop thinking about himself,” the mailer reads. “He was sued by two female employees who revealed a toxic workplace: Asked to forge and alter documents concerning taxpayer money. Were subject to sexual harassment and derogatory comments about women. Asked to lie for Singh to his wife when he brought strippers to the office.”
State records show the group, and its $270,000 in undisclosed contributions, are overseen by Miami attorney Rick Yabor.
Yabor disputes Singh’s claims that the attack ad is driven by Disney.
“We look into corrupt public officials throughout the state. We are reminding voters of Mr. Singh’s record. Frankly, I couldn’t care less who is the property appraiser is in Orange County or Miami-Dade County, so long as they are not corrupt,” Yabor said.
While Disney did not respond to a request for comment, Yabor added “…Mr Singh is wrong, his problems are not Mickey Mouse.”
“What I see missing in the current office is transparent compliance,” Mercado said. “There are weird pieces happening, different litigation, altering of documentations, and problems in the office.”
Mercado and Muneer say their reason for running for the job is to turn around an office they say has been plagued by problems and questionable actions.
“The incumbent has created a veil of secrecy and cloud over himself and the staff and the willingness to bend things he should be bending on,” Mercado said.
“When they can’t talk about appraisals and have nothing to talk about in terms of their credentials, they will look for other things to talk about,” Singh said. “Let’s talk about the lawsuits in question. It is one question, brought together by two disgruntled employees who sent me a letter which I consider to be an extortion letter. I had two choices, I could have written them a check, brushed it under the rug and gone away. I chose to be transparent.”
The two former employees, Laverene McGee and Aisha Hassan, filed a federal lawsuit in November 2018.
While McGee and Hassan accused Singh of sexual harassment and creating a hostile work environment, an independent investigation by then-former Orange County Chief Judge Belvin Perry found it could not substantiate the claims.
The claims by McGee and Hassan did, however, eventually lead to a Florida Department of Law Enforcement criminal investigation.
Weeks ahead of the election, assistant state attorneys Melissa Clark and Andrew Urbanak announced they would not file charges.
After reviewing “thousands of pages of documents and many hours of recorded witness interviews,” Clark and Urbanak said in a statement “…there is insufficient evidence to establish criminal activity beyond a reasonable doubt.”
The investigation included claims that Singh altered fuel expense records.
Singh said the investigation had long been “financially and politically motivated” in part by two former workers who have since filed a federal whistleblower lawsuit.
For his part, Singh says he has become a political target but is steadfast that his office continues to receive high marks for efficiency and appraisal practices through annual outside audits.
“I tell taxpayers you’re in good hands, you’re in experienced hands, you’re in trusted hands, you’re in proven battle- tested hands, no need to change,” Singh said.
However, Muneer and Mercado say change is needed.
“First day in office, I intend to hire a forensic accounting firm to look at all appraisal practices because peoples’s houses and businesses are the biggest lifetime investment. You want to make sure somebody is going to appraise those two lifetime investments accurately,” Muneer said.
“That office should not be in the news as often as it is,” Mercado said. “What I bring is the compliance piece, and what I see missing in the current office is transparent compliance.”