BROOKSVILLE — Everyone in Hernando County pays property taxes to help the schools keep running.
Well, almost everyone.
In a lawsuit filed last month, the School Board claims Hernando HMA Inc., the parent company of Spring Hill Regional and Brooksville Regional hospitals, owes the district property taxes.
The board is seeking an unspecified amount of current and back taxes and attorney's fees, naming both HMA and county Property Appraiser Alvin Mazourek as parties in the Circuit Court suit.
Officials estimate it could be worth up to $1 million a year to the cash-strapped school district.
If that sounds straightforward, think again. The Naples company doesn't own the buildings and land comprising the hospitals, having deeded them to the county.
Under an agreement, the county leases those facilities — worth at least $58 million — back to the company for an annual fee. Brooksville Regional Hospital will generate a $252,178 fee this year in lieu of property taxes, while Spring Hill Regional will pay $198,195.
So the case revolves around a much more obscure point in the law. Because county property is exempt from ad valorem taxes, can it legally declare a leaseholder of its property immune from paying as well?
Property appraiser Mazourek's attorney says it can.
"I'm not sure whether they've thought it through," said Gaylord A. Wood Jr., of the law firm Wood & Stuart in Bunnell. "(The case is) wholly frivolous, and we intend to defend it strongly."
Attorneys representing the company could not be reached for comment.
Wood said the state Department of Revenue collects a tax on the hospital's leasehold property and sends it right back to the school district.
"They presently should be receiving ad valorem tax," he added. "They probably don't know whether they're getting it."
But an attorney representing the School Board said it receives nothing of the sort from the hospitals.
"The school district has never seen any money from the state," said Robert L. Nabors, bond counsel with the Tallahassee firm of Nabors, Giblin & Nickerson.
And even if it were receiving such money, Nabors added, the district is entitled to collect a more substantial tax on the company's Hernando leasehold interests because they are being used for a private, profit-making purpose. The district believes any such exemption from taxation violates the Florida Constitution, he said.
"In this case, (the company and the appraiser's office) have taken the position that all the property interests are immune because it's owned by the county," Nabors said. "We just don't believe that's true."
Both sides agree on one thing: If the School Board were to win the case, it would brighten the financial picture for school districts across Florida.
"That would have a tremendous effect," said Wood, the assessor's lawyer. "It would apply to ports and everything."
Tom Marshall can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1431.