Orange County Property Appraiser Rick Singh is pointing to his experience in the job and the end of a criminal investigation into his office that failed to produce any charges as among the chief reasons voters should grant him a third term against two Democratic opponents.
Singh said his challengers, State Rep. Amy Mercado and and real-estate businessman Khalid Muneer, were banking on him being in handcuffs rather than the appraiser’s office on the 18th floor of the SunTrust Building as the Aug. 18 primary nears.
“Now what’s going to be their game plan?” he asked.
Mercado and Muneer have cited Singh’s questionable behavioras motivation for them to seek the high-paying constitutional office. Both said the decision by prosecutors to close out the investigation without charges for Singh changed little for their respective campaigns.
“Regardless of [the prosecutor’s] announcement/news, it is clear that Singh has engaged in unethical behavior at our property owners’ expense,” Mercado said. “My priority is to restore trust and faith in the OCPA office, and to ensure our property owners’ hard earned tax dollars are used ethically and efficiently.”
Muneer said the investigation by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which recommend that Singh be charged with 10 counts of official misconduct, a third-degree felony, and a report released by prosecutors last week about why those charges wouldn’t hold up, call into question Singh’s actions in office.
“There should be no improprieties in the property appraiser’s office or perception of them,” Muneer said. “It should be above reproach and he is not.”
Orange County Property Appraiser Rick Singh (Stephen M. Dowell / Orlando Sentinel)
Prosecutors said they had “insufficient evidence to establish criminal activity beyond a reasonable doubt” and would not file charges. Former administrators in Singh’s office, who he has called disgruntled and financially and politically motivated, allege he asked them to doctor documents about his expenses so he would look better in a county audit.
But a 10-page memo explaining the decision by State Attorney R.J. Larizza confirmed that the documents submitted for an audit were altered, but said prosecutors couldn’t confirm that the changes were made at Singh’s direction or that he received any actual benefit from the changes other than potentially avoiding political scrutiny at the time.
The county property appraiser is one of the most powerful locally elected positions because the office determines how much homeowners and land holders pay in taxes by setting the value of properties.
The winner of the Aug. 18 primary will only face write-in candidates in the November general election, all but guaranteeing that next month’s winner will take the position that comes with a $172,000 salary.
The emergence of two write-in candidates, Republican Scott Boyd, a former county commissioner, and Timothy Loucks, a former mayor of Groveland in Lake County, served to close the primary to all voters except registered Democrats, who make up just 43% of registered voters in Orange.
Loucks, who donated to Singh’s campaign, refused to discuss his candidacy or his relationship with Singh.
Both Mercado and Muneer say the public has lost trust in the property appraiser’s office because of scandals, self-promotion and taxpayer lawsuits which have marked Singh’s eight-year tenure which began when he upset incumbent Bill Donegan in 2012.
Both challengers say Singh has wasted taxpayers’ money to promote himself and defend his behavior in office.
Singh knocked his opponents as unqualified to hold his job, saying neither has ever appraised a property.
“It’s called unconscionable incompetence,” he said. “They don’t know what they don’t know.”
Mercado and Muneer point out state law doesn’t require the elected appraiser to be certified in the appraisal field.
Mercado, 46, was first elected to the Florida House in 2016 and made history in her first term with her father, state Sen. Victor Torres, as the first father-daughter Latinos to serve in the Legislature at the same time. She is the ranking Democrat on the House Ways & Means Committee.
She said the appraiser’s office needs leadership skills which she sharpened as director of operations for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Mango Board, where she manages its multi-million dollar budget, reputation, human resources and procurement.
Muneer, 68, owns Jupiter Properties which was founded in Flagler County, but moved its office to Orlando in 2009.
He said he has been evaluating properties for more than two decades.
Muneer, an Orlando resident for two years, graduated from Orlando Economic Partnership’s Political Leadership Institute.
Singh, 57, ended years of Republican leadership in the property appraiser’s office when he was first elected in 2012.
Before he ran for office, he owned several small businesses in the Orlando area, including an auto repair shop and an appraisal company. An Army veteran, he began his career in the office as an entry-level field appraiser under Rich Crotty, who later became Orange County mayor.
State Rep. Amy Mercado, Democratic candidate for Orange County Property Appraiser (cortesía)
Laughing, Singh dismissed his opponents’ qualifications.
“Disney would love to sit down with Khalid Muneer or Amy Mercado because they could pull the wool over their eyes,” he said. “They have no knowledge of appraising practices and they’re simply incompetent.”
Singh has sparred often in court with Disney over assessments as property appraiser.
But Muneer said Disney should not be treated by the appraiser as “a villain.”
He said the appraiser should sit down with Disney and discuss their differences rather than rack up legal bills for taxpayers.
Mercado said Disney should be treated fairly and their properties should be assessed the same as any taxpayer’s.
Singh said he’s waged necessary legal battles to get Disney and other large property owners like Darden and Orange County hoteliers to pay their fair share by assessing their holdings more accurately than his predecessors.
“Being the first qualified, state-certified appraiser in the history of this office, I have the ability to see B.S. And call it like it is,” he said.
Singh has amassed a campaign war chest of $198,786 since Sept. 2019, dwarfing both opponents combined. More than $25,000 was donated by real estate interests and $11,000 was kicked in by hoteliers, including $6,000 by Harris Rosen or his companies.
Muneer has raised about $57,000, though he has only $13,000 remaining for the campaign’s final stretch.
Mercado has received $48,000 in donations since announcing her candidacy in May, including $1,000 donations each from several political action committees backing Democratic Party causes. Campaign finance records show she transferred about $12,400 in carry-over funds from her legislative campaign account.
Real-estate businessman Khalid Muneer, Democratic candidate for property appraiser
Singh, who boasts that he has taken on the county’s “fat cats” by assessing their property at higher values, was dealt a blow in a recent court ruling which declared the method he used to assess Disney’s Yacht & Beach Club Resort to be illegal under Florida law.
He has asked the court for a re-hearing, insisting the judge erred.
Political news from Central Florida and across the state.
Mercado and Muneer said the county could be forced to refund millions to Disney and other hotel companies if those companies use the ruling to appeal for lower tax assessments on their properties. Disney has challenged appraisals for at least 10 other hotels.
While hoteliers could recoup tax refunds, cities, counties and school districts could lose millions of dollars in property taxes.
Singh said his office is a “world-class operation” which appraises a complex tax roll of $220 billion.
He boasts of his accuracy in appraisals and success in defending them in taxpayer appeals.
Mercado and Muneer said Singh has wasted public money on self-promotion and fights with taxpayers and ex-employees.
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