NEW PORT RICHEY — Pasco County says its coastal neighbor to the south is a tax scofflaw — again.
For the second year in a row, Pinellas County hasn't paid the property taxes on 12,400 acres it owns in central Pasco, reigniting a feud from last year when it told Pasco it wouldn't pay up.
Pinellas' tab for the 2012 and 2013 tax years, including interest and penalties: $112,400, according to Pasco Tax Collector Mike Fasano, who called the dispute an embarrassment to Pinellas leadership that needs to be corrected before it ends up in the courts.
"They have been paying taxes on that property for years and years and years and now all of sudden they have decided they are immune from paying taxes?" he said. "It's mind boggling."
Pinellas owns the Cross Bar and Al Bar ranches, north of State Road 52 and east of U.S. 41. The land is used for timber harvesting and cattle ranching, but it's prized more for its Tampa Bay Water-owned wellheads that supply drinking water to the region.
Pinellas bought the property in the 1970s fearing it might run out of water. For decades, it dutifully paid the taxes on the property. Then it stopped paying last year and sent a letter to Pasco officials stating the county didn't owe taxes on the land.
The declaration sparked a war of words between the neighboring counties.
"Basically, the state and subdivisions of the state are immune from taxation, and counties are considered subdivisions of the state," Pinellas Assistant County Attorney Joseph Morrissey said.
He said Pinellas paid its Pasco property taxes for years because of "an administrative decision that was made," but that era is over.
After a 2012 audit of the Cross Bar and Al Bar operations, the county learned it could save money by invoking sections of a statute and Florida's constitution that pertain to government immunity. Tens of thousands of dollars were at stake. From 2007 to 2011, the county paid close to $230,000 in taxes on the properties, the audit said.
Pasco tax officials insist Pinellas is misreading the law. They say Pinellas is immune from taxes only within its borders, not everywhere in Florida.
"That would be like the state of Florida going to Las Vegas and buying a casino and then saying, 'We're not going to pay the taxes on the casino,'" Pasco Assistant Property Appraiser Wade Barber said. "I don't think the state of Nevada would like that."
For now, the sides remain deadlocked.
Pasco has already sold the tax certificates for Pinellas' 2012 tax bill and next month will sell the certificates for 2013 unless Pinellas pays up, which isn't likely to happen.
Late last week, Pinellas sent a letter to Pasco reiterating its position:
"As you know, property owned by a county is immune from ad valorem taxation," Morrissey wrote to Fasano. "In the past, Pinellas County has voluntarily paid these levies. However, the county is no longer in a position to do so."
Fasano said Pinellas isn't just misreading the law. It's ignoring the law. State law allows taxpayers to challenge appraisals after tax notices go out in August and October, but Pinellas has never appealed its assessment — or even responded to the notices, he said.
Pasco finally got back a response late last week.
"What's boggling is we get a letter only because they got a late notice from us," Fasano said. "What did they do with the other notices? Throw them away?"
If the tax bill goes unpaid past 2014, Pinellas could lose the properties. Tax deed sales for delinquent properties generally occur after three years of non-payment.
Morrissey said the counties will resolve the issue before it comes to that.
Rich Shopes can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6236.