The water wars between Pasco and Pinellas counties may be ancient history, but a new fight is brewing — this time, over property taxes.
Pasco County officials say Pinellas owes them roughly $59,000 in back taxes on 12,400 acres it owns in the central part of the county. Known as the Cross Bar and Al Bar ranches, the land is used for timber and pine straw harvesting, as well as cattle ranching, but its most important assets are the Tampa Bay Water-owned wellheads that supply the region with millions of gallons of drinking water each year. Recently, Pasco County commissioners made a failed bid to buy back the land.
Afraid that it would run out of water, Pinellas bought the land in the mid 1970s, kicking off a years-long fight with Pasco over groundwater pumping. Since then, Pinellas has dutifully paid taxes on it. But that era is over, Pinellas officials told the Pasco property appraiser in letter sent in April.
Pinellas paid the taxes for decades "voluntarily" and out of goodwill, officials said, until an audit last year raised the possibility that the land might be exempt.
Property owned by a county outside its borders is taxed, according to state law. But it may be immune from taxation if it's used mainly for educational, literary, scientific or charitable purposes. Pinellas officials say the Cross Bar Ranch, which is a refuge for wildlife and hosts educational programs for Pasco students, meets that criteria.
"Naturally, I believe that they're wrong and I'm right," said Wade Barber, Pasco's deputy property appraiser.
Pinellas is using the land for agriculture, he said, and it should pay taxes like every other farmer and cattle rancher in the county. As for Pinellas' argument that county-owned land is immune from taxation, "It'd be like the state of Florida saying we can buy a chunk of land in Alabama or Georgia and not pay taxes."
The way Barber sees it, Pinellas officials had 60 days after they got their tax bill last year to file for an exemption, a step they didn't take. So Pasco did what it would do to any delinquent property owner, it sold certificates on the land, raising Pinellas' total owed by about $7,000.
Pasco officials never responded to Pinellas' letter refusing to pay.
"We just keep on doing what we're doing until the court tells us to stop," Barber said.
From 2007 to 2011, Pinellas paid Pasco about $230,000 in taxes on the Cross Bar land, according to the county's own audit.
"For whatever reason, those properties have ended up on the Pasco County tax roll and in the past we have paid those bills," said Joe Morrissey, an assistant attorney for Pinellas.
He said he views that arrangement as an "historical artifact," he said, and a legally unnecessary one.
"We'll have some issues to work out," he said.
The land is not in any immediate danger of being auctioned off or reverting to Pasco ownership. The two sides will likely begin discussing the dispute soon, Morrissey said.
Contact Anna M. Phillips at [email protected] or (727) 893-8779.