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Pinellas seeks answers in years-old tax dispute
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Pinellas County Attorney Jim Bennett recommends that county commissioners seek legal help April 7 to resolve a tax dispute with Pasco County’s property appraiser.
CLEARWATER – Pinellas County Commissioners gave the go ahead, 6-0, April 7, to seek the court’s help in resolving a tax issue with the Pasco County Property Appraiser.

Commissioner Pat Gerard was absent.

County Attorney Jim Bennett recommended that commissioners authorize his office to initiate litigation to seek a declaratory judgement and injunctive relief against Mike Wells, Pasco County Property Appraiser, Mike Fasano, Pasco County Tax Collector, and Marshal Stranburg, executive director of the Florida Department of Revenue.

The question is should Pinellas County have to pay ad valorem taxes on its land located in Pasco County.

Pinellas bought the 8,200-acre Cross Bar Ranch in 1976 and the adjoining 4,200-acre Al Bar Ranch in 1990. All 12,400 acres are located in central Pasco County.

Pinellas purchased Crossbar to help supply its water needs. Seventeen wellhead sites located on 6.41 acres began producing drinking water in 1980. The county sold the wells and water rights on Crossbar in the mid-1990s as part of a deal that created Tampa Bay Water.

Pasco County made an offer to purchase the land in 2014, which Pinellas declined.

Commissioner Ken Welch seemed reluctant to use legal means to deal with the dispute.

“Is there no other way to resolve this,” he asked.

“Their position is fairly entrenched,” Bennett said.

He said the county had redeemed tax certificates Pasco had issued for the past three years, after Pinellas refused to pay the tax bill.

“This is essentially a legal issue,” he said. “It’s a question of law.”

He said the county shouldn’t have to keep redeeming the tax certificate year after year.

Welch asked if the county was unique in terms of the taxing situation, and Bennett said it was. He said property exemptions statutes were constitutional in nature, providing immunity from taxes. But Pasco doesn’t agree.

Bennett described the Pasco property appraiser’s position as “extreme, losing immunity when you cross county lines.”

He explained some of the history between the two counties and the tax bill. He said for a “time” Pinellas just agreed to pay taxes on the land. Then Pasco sent a letter that said Pinellas was immune and should not pay. But, Pinellas continued to make payments in lieu of taxes as part of a “good neighbor policy.” When the economic downturn hit, Pinellas stopped paying. The Pasco County property appraiser put the land back on the tax rolls three years ago.

Commissioner Karen Seel said it was important to settle the matter. She questioned how much Pinellas had paid over the years. She also questioned the county’s liability on the land, especially since Pinellas allows Pasco school students to take field trips to Cross Bar and use the education center.

“Do we have an agreement with the school board on insurance,” she asked.

“It’s not good when governments can’t talk to each other,” Commissioner Dave Eggers said.

Bennett said the beef wasn’t with Pasco County, which has no jurisdiction over the property appraiser.

“We need to find an answer,” Commission Vice-chair Charlie Justice said. “We need to get that opinion once and for all. If it is, we’ll pay it. If not, we shouldn’t pay it.”
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