Duval County is nestled in the northeast corner of the state at the confluence of the St. Johns River and the Atlantic Ocean. At its center is the city of Jacksonville, nicknamed the “River City by the Sea,” the fourth most populous city in Florida and home to the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars. Golf fans know the area well, too, as the site of the Players Championship—golf’s so-called “fifth major”—which takes place every year at TPC Sawgrass in nearby Ponte Vedra Beach. Close to one million people live in the county, and back when he ran a local construction company, Jerry Holland, now the county’s property appraiser, built many of their homes.
Before you were elected as Duval County’s property appraiser, you were the county’s supervisor of elections. Why did you run for property appraiser?
One reason I ran is because we have term limits here, so I was termed out as supervisor of elections. The position for property appraiser was an open position. My background is in real estate. I’m a general contractor, licensed real-estate broker, and licensed appraiser, so it was a natural fit.
Given your background and experience, what ideas or guiding principles have you brought to the job?
I know how the local government works, having served on the county commission/city council prior to being supervisor of elections, and I understand the real estate market in Duval County. But the biggest thing is managerial experience. Operating an organization with a $10 million annual budget, dealing with people issues, finding the best people, team building—no matter what organization you go into, those are the things you try to do.
Shortly after you took office, you let your chief administrator go and gave the rest of your staff long-overdue raises. Why did you take that course of action?
I let the chief administrator go because the individual was my predecessor’s hire, and that’s always been my role, as CEO, to oversee the process of the whole organization. I didn’t need anyone in that role. Also, when I came in there were 120 employees and the city had not given raises for at least six years. We had a turnover problem because, as the real estate market rebounds, there are more jobs in the private sector. I wanted to cut the turnover and give people raises, and the best way to do that was, first, to look at the positions that weren’t necessary. As I lost positions, I asked my staff: Would you rather take on more work and make more money, or hire more people? They wanted the salary raise, so we spread out the savings from six salaried positions, which helped prevent turnover in many key areas.
You’ve introduced a number of other measures to save costs and increase efficiency. Explain some of the other steps you’ve taken and why.
I think it’s important to direct priorities and identify things that haven’t been done. The first thing I did when I came in was ask everyone three questions: What are we doing that you would like to see us continue to do? What are we doing that you’d like us no longer to do? And what things would you like to see us do? Those three questions prompted a lot of suggestions about how we could run the organization better. It also started a dialogue, which is what I wanted—information not just coming from the top down, but from the bottom up.
What did you learn?
One area we found could be improved was exemption compliance. We didn’t feel like we were really on top of that. Were people really entitled to their exemptions? Were homestead exemptions being misused? So we shifted some people around to expand our compliance area, and we ended up identifying about 1,600 taxpayers who were claiming exemptions they weren’t entitled to. That brought in close to $12 million in back taxes, penalties, and interest.
How many appraisers do you have working for you?
We have about 360,000 parcels in Duval County. Of that, about 35,000 are commercial and the remainder are residential. On the commercial side we have seven appraisers (not counting their manager), and on the residential side we have 13 appraisers. We also have seven appraisers who appraise personal property and tangible assets that are not real estate.
Is there anything unusual or unique about Duval County’s property-assessment challenges?
We’re fortunate. We’re the seventh-largest county in the state, and we’re pretty diversified. We don’t have a lot of agriculture, but we have government land—military bases, which come off the tax rolls—and we have a lot of waterfront property, both ocean and river. There are low-income and high-income areas, so our appraisers get a wide variety of property types to appraise. That’s good, because when something new comes to town, they’ve usually encountered something similar, and have that experience to draw on.
Jacksonville is the largest city in Duval County. Are there other notable regions or districts within the county that are important from a property-tax standpoint?
Although we’re the seventh-largest county in the state, we have the fewest number of taxing districts. We’re a consolidated government, so our county is the city of Jacksonville. Then we have four other small townships, two school districts, and two state taxing districts. By contrast, Miami-Dade has close to 30 tax districts, just in municipalities. We’re fortunate to have so few, because it’s less confusing. We don’t have as much trouble explaining to the public what we do and how we do it.
Do you engage in any special types of public outreach to get the message out about how your office works?
We’ve improved outreach to the community in a couple of different ways. One is to identify ourselves. In the state of Florida, we’re required to put eyes on all properties once every five years. A lot of people didn’t even know we were out in their community. So the first thing I did was brand all the cars, so people recognized that cars with the blue and green stripe and big seal are from the property appraiser’s office, and knew we were in their neighborhood. Another thing I did was have staff make up a door hanger to let people know that we came by and why. I put my cellphone number on the door hanger, even though my staff thought I was going to get overwhelmed with phone calls. But the truth is, I get maybe five or six calls a week, and people actually appreciate it. Our social media is important too. We use it to let people know what’s going on. I’ve also established an excellent rapport with the media so we can stay ahead of the news rather than lag behind it. We also use digital billboards around town to remind people about filing deadlines for homestead. I’ve also got an amazing customer-service department. They constantly get accolades about how helpful and friendly they are.
Last year, you got some serious flooding from Hurricane Irma. From a property assessment standpoint, what was its impact? What were the days and weeks after the storm like in your office?
We were very cautious about not putting people in harm’s way, so right before the storm and for a few days after, we basically shut down so people could be with their families. But a year later, we still see properties around that are covered with blue tarp or still have an issue with their insurance company. I don’t have concrete numbers on values, because we only did assessments by request. But I know from driving around the community that Irma wasn’t as devastating for us as it was for some other counties. It definitely had an impact, but the strangest thing was that the river backed up and flooded areas that hadn’t been flooded for a hundred years. We had areas downtown where the water was five or six feet high, which was unusual for us.
Are you still dealing with the Hurricane’s aftermath? And has your office done anything different to prepare for the upcoming hurricane season?
The main thing is to let homeowners know if they’re eligible for tax relief—to remind them that their value is set on Jan. 1, for instance—and other issues like that. Our role is mostly to inform people about the appraisal process, and to answer questions if they have them.
Are there any initiatives you hope to implement during your term as property appraiser that you haven’t already?
At this point, we’re looking at a couple of technology changes to help make us more efficient. In the next term, we’re upgrading our CAMA system, and we’ll be looking at using more aerial photography for change detection. This term was more about addressing management and personnel issues. Next term will be about upgrading the technology of our operation.
Do you have any other suggestions for property appraisers who might want to implement some of the strategies you’ve talked about?
Communication in the office is the most important thing. I try to sit down with each employee and have them tell me what they’re working on. My door is always open, and I encourage employees to come in if they want to talk. We’ve also implemented a lot of employee ideas, from ID badges to suggestion boxes. The important thing is to make sure the communication is going in both directions. We want efficiency and to get more out of people, but we also want them to enjoy coming to work.