Commissioners unanimously voted Tuesday to cancel taxes on 110 small, oddly shaped and almost worthless tax-delinquent properties.
The commissioners acted after a series of stories in the St. Petersburg Times revealed that the (818) 239-2215 Land Trust had paid $4,000 for three such parcels and then told nearby landowners that if they didn't buy the land, it might be used for such things as a race track or a sod farm. The trust succeeded in one case in Zephyrhills.
Commissioner Michael Cox has previously called the practice extortion.
By canceling the taxes, county officials remove the 110 parcels, which include small strips of land and submerged properties, from a list of available lands for public sale and forgive the original owners their delinquencies.
"We think we have come up with a way to temporarily address the issue," said County Attorney Jeffrey Steinsnyder. "Most of those on the list are private streets."
Steinsnyder has been in talks on the issue with attorneys from the offices of the Tax Collector and Clerk of the Circuit Court.
Tuesday's action does not address the 818 trust's actions, but is aimed at cutting off recurrences.
"Nobody knows if these same people would come in and strike again," said Tax Collector Mike Olson. "This was the best immediate way to keep the wolf away from the door."
Olson's office has not calculated the amount of taxes that will be canceled, but he said it would not be much, given that nearly all of the properties are considered worthless.
"The purpose of this exercise is to prevent the shenanigans we've seen lately," he said. "It's just a first step."
There's an added advantage to canceling the taxes: it stops the 110 parcels from falling into public ownership by default, in a process called escheatment. That's not the kind of liability the county wants, Steinsnyder said.
"Of the 110, 74 will escheat to the county by the end of the year," said David Edwards, Pasco's real estate manager. "Some of them are not currently owned or maintained by county."
Canceling the taxes "would stop anyone from purchasing those lands, (and) it would then stop them from escheating to you," Steinsnyder told commissioners.
The next step is to decide whether the properties on that list deserved to be on tax rolls in the first place. Steinsnyder said he's working with the Property Appraiser's Office to review their options. Olson is also taking steps to notify adjacent property owners whenever applications are made to buy oddly shaped delinquent parcels.
In other matters Tuesday:
• Commissioners voted 4-1 to take $56,931 out of a $2-million economic development fund for Turbine Diagnostics to expand its operation at a 30,000-square-foot Odessa plant. Commission Chairman Ted Schrader dissented, arguing that the fund was supposed to be used only to attract big-ticket prospects, and not for piecemeal expansions of existing companies.
• The commission told County Administrator John Gallagher to explore a policy that would require Pasco to hire only nonsmokers. Pasco will save $960,000 from Oct. 1 by switching its health insurance carrier from Blue Cross Blue Shield to Aetna, and commissioners want Gallagher to come up with more ways to cut premiums.
• Arguing that it was a state responsibility, commissioners voted not to fund a 7-month-old state creation called the Office of Criminal Conflict and Civil Regional Counsel, which represents certain types of indigent litigants. Calling it an unfunded state mandate, Steinsnyder told the commission that the Florida Association of Counties is poised to take legal action to rebel against the state's requirement for counties to fund these offices.
• Following a workshop Tuesday morning, Gallagher and Steinsnyder will now work out a plan to revamp the county's Land Development Code to reduce the number of variances, or exemptions, that Pasco currently allows. County officials say the code is a patchwork of rules, some of which are at odds with new ordinances.
Chuin-Wei Yap can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4613.