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State files tax lien against troubled Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary

INDIAN SHORES — In another sign of financial distress, the state filed a lien Wednesday against the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary for failing to pay unemployment taxes.

The lien, filed with the Pinellas County Clerk of Court, claims the sanctuary failed to pay unemployment taxes totaling $6,656.11 between April 1 and Sept. 1. The state Department of Revenue also seeks $1,028.08 in interest, penalties and other fees for a total of $7,684.19.

"There is nothing we can do," operations manager Micki Eslick said. "We just can't pay at this time. But it will be paid when we can."

The sanctuary, founded by zoologist Ralph Heath in 1971, claims an international reputation as one of the top avian rehabilitation centers. But Heath has faced criticism for a lax leadership style. That criticism intensified last year as Heath endured a barrage of charges by members of at least one group that wants him out so it can take over operations at the sanctuary, whose financial health has grown increasingly perilous.

The Internal Revenue Service last year filed three liens totaling about $186,726 for unpaid payroll taxes. Also last year, the U.S. Department of Labor concluded the sanctuary had not paid some employees for weeks. The sanctuary agreed to pay $21,336 in back wages for nine employees.

It also fell behind on payments to the company that supplied fish for the birds.

Last month Progress Energy cut off the power for nonpayment of the bill, but restored it later that day when the sanctuary paid part of the bill and arranged to pay the rest. Also last month, a creditor filed notice of a suit to foreclose on warehouse property the sanctuary owns at 12388 Starkey Road near Largo. The creditor, Ronald J. Cooper, says Heath and the sanctuary owe him $550,000 as well as unpaid interest, damages and attorney's fees.

A week later, the sanctuary announced it would no longer be able to take in new sick or injured birds. At the time, Eslick said the sanctuary needed to concentrate on caring for the birds that already live there.

Anne Lindberg can be reached at alindberg@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8450.

State files tax lien against troubled Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary 02/13/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 13, 2013 8:54pm]
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