Candidate right on cost of land scandal

Pinellas County Property Appraiser Jim Smith looks across the creek that bisects the property he sold to the county for almost four times what his office said was its appraised value. Two county officials lost their jobs because of the deal.

JIM DAMASKE | Times (2007)

Pinellas County Property Appraiser Jim Smith looks across the creek that bisects the property he sold to the county for almost four times what his office said was its appraised value. Two county officials lost their jobs because of the deal.

The statement

"Property Appraiser Jim Smith's sweetheart land deal led to a grand jury hearing, the county attorney's firing, the county administrator's resignation. A cost of over $1-million to Pinellas County taxpayers."

Ben Friedlander, Democratic candidate for Pinellas County property appraiser, in a radio ad.

The ruling

The fiasco clears $1-million when you add up the land purchase, the county attorney severance, the county administrator separation, the administrator search, the consultant, and countless county work hours.

On the Web: To hear the full radio ad, search blogs.tampabay.com/baybuzz for "Friedlander ad links Dubov to Smith" posted on Oct. 13.

Taxpayers' cost from the Jim Smith property deal

+$1-million

A stinging ad from Ben Friedlander, a Democrat running for Pinellas County property appraiser, has hit local radio.

The ad blasts Friedlander's Republican opponent, Pam Dubov, for standing idle during the county's purchase last year of land owned by Property Appraiser Jim Smith.

A grand jury was convened to probe the scandal, which ensnared and toppled high-ranking Pinellas officials, including the county administrator and county attorney, who both lost their jobs.

Dubov, Smith's longtime chief deputy, has maintained that she told her boss not to go through with the sale because the public would never approve of a purchase price that was nearly quadruple the land's assessed value.

Voters will decide whether in failing to alert others to her concerns, Dubov "chose her boss instead of the taxpayers," as the ad — first aired Oct. 14 on WDUV 105.5 FM — asserts.

Here, we'll focus on another claim made in the ad: That the Smith deal resulted in "a cost of over $1-million to Pinellas County taxpayers."

Similar claims have been made by Democrat Norm Roche. He's running for the District 5 County Commission seat against Republican incumbent Karen Seel.

Let's tally:

The county paid $3,600 to assess the land. The purchase price was $225,000. The county attorney, who was fired, got $96,507 in severance. The county administrator, who resigned, got a $255,029 separation agreement.

To conduct a nationwide search for a new administrator, the county paid $36,449. And a consultant got $252,000 to review the county's real estate practices.

That adds up to $868,585, or $131,415 shy of $1-million.

Those figures, however, don't include the countless hours that county employees spent on the Smith issue from March 2007, when he first approached the county seeking a deal, through September 2007, when the grand jury issued its report.

County legal, public works and real estate staffers were all involved. They hired assessors, developed legal contracts, held meetings and, eventually, collected thousands of pages of documents for state investigators to review.

Interim County Administrator Fred Marquis said that if you choose to include "every tangent thing" in the total, such as staff time spent on the transaction and its fallout, it's hard not to conclude the total taxpayer cost is greater than $1-million.

"I don't how you would put a hard number on it," he said, "but that's just a gut feeling."

Now consider the investigation itself.

Pinellas-Pasco Chief Assistant State Attorney Bruce Bartlett said he could not put a price on the work his office did, but it wasn't cheap. His office reviewed thousands of pages of documents, he said, and was for several weeks focused relentlessly on the investigation.

"A lot of people put a whole lot of time into that thing," Bartlett said.

Given all the labor government workers expended on the fiasco, it's clear the total taxpayer cost of the Smith affair eclipsed $1-million. We rule Friedlander's statement True.

Will Van Sant can be reached at vansant@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4166.

Breaking down the total

$3,600 Amount that Pinellas County paid to assess the land

$225,000 Purchase price of the
property

$96,507
Amount of severance County
Attorney Susan Churuti received after she was fired

$255,029 Amount County Administrator Steve Spratt received in a separation agreement when he resigned

$36,449
Amount the county paid in a national search for a new administrator

$252,000
Amount a consultant was paid to review the county's real estate practices

This totals $868,585. When adding the salaries of employees — such as county legal, public works and real estate staffers — who spent hours working on the Smith issue from March-September 2007, interim County Administrator Fred Marquis says the final amount would be more than $1-million.

Sources

• Sales agreement for Smith's property.

• Invoices for private appraisers hired by the county.

• Separation agreement for former Pinellas Administrator Steve Spratt

• Final pay statement for former Pinellas Attorney Susan Churuti

• Invoice for consultant hired to review county real estate practices

• Invoices for consultant hired to find a new administrator

• Interview with Bruce Bartlett, chief assistant state attorney, Oct. 14, 2008

• Interview with interim County Administrator Fred Marquis, Oct. 17, 2008

The Jim Smith land deal resulted in "a cost of over $1-million to Pinellas County taxpayers."

Candidate right on cost of land scandal 10/21/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 22, 2008 3:20pm]

    

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