Just mentioning the 50-50 rule creates anxiety in homeowners rebuilding after Hurricane Ian. It’s not simple or easy to understand. Then there is the added complication of the homestead exemption.
FEMA sent a letter on Tuesday to Lee County lawmakers saying the Lee County Appraiser’s Office uses a potentially inconsistent method to determine a home’s value, which sent some leaders into a panic.
What FEMA calls “A potentially inconsistent method” comes from the fact that FEMA does not understand how Lee County assesses a home’s value.
On Friday, the federal agency admitted it should have never sent that letter in the first place. The tension between FEMA and Lee County turned out to be a big misunderstanding.
“It’s incredibly disappointing,” said Lee County Property Appraiser Matt Caldwell.
Who’s to blame? Caldwell says it’s clear as day. “This has been… a major error on the part of FEMA.”
Caldwell said FEMA did not understand how Lee County values its properties. If you’re a permanent resident of Lee County, you get an initial property assessment. If you qualify for a homestead exemption, your annual assessment can only go up by 3%.
For example, if your home is worth $200,000, after 30 years, it will be worth dramatically more in the open market than it will when Lee County lists its assessed value.
“It’s a huge tax benefit for longtime homeowners,” said Caldwell.
So two similar homes on the same street could have dramatically different values based on who owns them.
Lots of homes are undervalued on purpose. After Hurricane Ian, Caldwell advised all Lee County municipalities how to help homeowners recalculate their home’s value to qualify for FEMA reimbursement.
FEMA sent letters to all lee county governments this week saying that didn’t work for the agency and told them to ignore Caldwell’s guidelines.
“They didn’t contact us and ask us to explain it to them at all before they before they issued an opinion,” Caldwell said.
That caused a lot of stress, so Caldwell got on the phone Friday morning with FEMA and every city and town leader in Lee County and explained how the homestead exemption works.
FEMA got the picture.
“They clearly understood they’ve made a horrendous error,” said Caldwell.
Caldwell expects FEMA to fix their mistake within three to four days.
“This is going to be resolved. All of the jurisdictions have said they’re going to ignore the letter more or less and stick with the game plan the way we have been operating previously. And they look forward to FEMA memorializing that they agree with us now, hopefully, on Monday or Tuesday,” Caldwell said.
WINK News has reached out to FEMA, which said it would provide a statement about the misunderstanding. When we get that statement, we will add it to this story.