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Pinellas to pay 'embarrassing' Pasco property tax bill

NEW PORT RICHEY — Pinellas County will pay Pasco more than $113,000 in back taxes for two properties, but the counties' tax feud could drag on.

The issue surfaced last year and emerged again a couple of weeks ago when the Pinellas County Attorney's Office wrote to Pasco that its properties at the Al Bar and Cross Bar ranches north of State Road 52 were immune from property taxes because they are county-owned.

The refusal touched off strong rebuttals from Pasco officials, including Tax Collector Mike Fasano who called the decision "mind boggling" since Pinellas had paid the taxes in previous years.

Pinellas commissioners said they, too, were stunned by the overdue bill. They voted unanimously last week to pay it.

"It was very embarrassing to find out," Commissioner Susan Latvala said.

Commission Chairwoman Karen Seel was surprised as well, saying she learned about the unpaid bill only after reading about it in the Tampa Bay Times.

She blamed a lack of communication by the county staff. Commissioners had directed the staff to research the immunity question about a year ago but never told them to skip out on payments, she said.

Pasco Property Appraiser Mike Wells said Pinellas commissioners "made a wise decision" to pay up.

Fasano said he too was pleased by the move, but he noted Pinellas could have avoided roughly $10,000 in interest and penalties had it paid on time.

The 2012 tax certificates were sold to investors last year and had the issue lingered another year, the two properties totaling 12,400 acres risked being sold at auction, he said.

"It's mind boggling that a county government would ignore their responsibility and at a minimum try to work with their neighboring county to get this issue resolved," Fasano said. "But to just let the tax certificates be sold tells me there was some lack of communication going on in Pinellas County government."

The tax question is far from over, however.

At Tuesday's meeting, Pinellas commissioners instructed the staff to meet with Pasco officials about future payments and directed attorneys to investigate the legality of withholding the payments.

Both counties insist they have legal standing. Pinellas assistant county attorney Joseph Morrissey said state law grants local governments immunity from property taxes, while Pasco officials insist that only applies to property within their own jurisdiction, not everywhere in Florida.

Seel said she wants the sides to strike a compromise that involves some kind of remittance, possibly a payment in lieu of taxes.

The properties — north of SR 52 and east of U.S. 41 — are home to wellheads belonging to Tampa Bay Water, which supplies drinking water to Pinellas.

The counties were at odds for years after groundwater pumping at the wells caused Pasco lakes to run dry. The "water wars" finally abated after Pinellas broadened its sources of potable water, but memories of the feud remain a sore spot.

"We've smoothed things over since then, and I want to avoid any bad feelings between the counties," Latvala said.

Pasco, seeking a long-term solution, has recently approached Pinellas about buying the Al Bar and Cross Bar ranches to safeguard them from development, but Pinellas commissioners have rejected that idea.

Rich Shopes can be reached at rshopes@tampabay.com or (727) 869-6236.

Pinellas to pay 'embarrassing' Pasco property tax bill 04/18/14 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 22, 2014 2:49pm]
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