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Two developers owe Pinellas $645,783 in back taxes

High-profile developer Grady Pridgen and former NBA player Matt Geiger are delinquent in their property tax payments, both squeezed by the grinding recession.

Pridgen and his companies owe the public purse $356,201. Yet in July, Pinellas County commissioners awarded him valuable land-use concessions on property with overdue taxes.

Geiger owes $289,582 on both his Tarpon Springs estate and his 64-acre luxury housing venture where, he said, lot sales have dried up.

The bleak real estate market and enduring credit crisis are to blame, Geiger and a Pridgen spokeswoman said.

Three years ago, Geiger said, lots at his planned Bison Creek Estates project sold for $800,000. Now the former Miami Heat and Philadelphia 76ers player said there are no buyers, even though he has slashed prices by half.

"It's just tough on my company right now to make it," Geiger said. "I'm trying to bust my tail to do everything I can to move property."

Delinquent taxes at Bison Creek total $159,977.

Geiger, though, said the back taxes on his palatial pad are more the result of a disagreement with a prospective buyer. The tax bill on that house alone — a 28,000-square-foot mansion off Keystone Road — is $129,595.

Records show St. Petersburg-based Pridgen, owner of Grady Pridgen Inc., owes $291,091 on a variety of parcels spread among his development companies. Back taxes on seven of those parcels, a total of $134,538, have been unpaid since the 2006 tax cycle.

Those parcels were consolidated as part of Pridgen's ambitious La Entrada venture, a planned mixed-use development to be built on 133 acres north of Gandy Boulevard and west of Interstate 275.

After years of government review by St. Petersburg and the county, Pridgen in July secured a long-sought density bump that allows 2,404 housing units at La Entrada rather than 1,000. In exchange, 30 percent must be set aside as affordable housing.

County Commissioners relaxed the density limit unaware, they say now, that Pridgen had unmet tax obligations.

Pridgen also owes $65,110 on three St. Petersburg properties where he, not a company, is the listed owner. On one downtown property he has an active homestead exemption. Another property is a condo. Records also list him as owner of a delinquent property that is part of his Gateway Business Park, which is just north of Gandy Boulevard and east of I-275.

On Feb. 4, Pridgen will ask St. Petersburg's Development Review Commission to restore an expired site plan for Gateway Business Park that allows construction of two four-story office buildings and a parking garage.

Pridgen, whose smiling face can be seen on a billboard on I-275 in St. Petersburg, did not return calls for comment. His spokeswoman, Honey Rand, said in an e-mail that every developer on "the planet has been caught up in the credit crunch" and hurt by governments unwilling to quickly move projects along. Rand did not respond to detailed questions about Pridgen's back taxes.

Pinellas property tax bills are mailed in October each year and are considered delinquent if not paid by April 1.

Pridgen is not the only developer to strike deals with the county while owing back taxes. Earlier this month, the commission inked a development agreement for Bayside Reserves, an affordable housing project proposed just west of the Bayside Bridge's southern end. The county donated nearly nine acres to the project, which the Pinellas Planning Council opposed, saying it was a poor fit for the neighborhood.

When commissioners gave the go-ahead, Bayside Reserves developer Roger Broderick owed $47,779 in taxes. Most was owed on a Pinellas Park office building, the remainder on some vacant lots Broderick and a partner own.

Broderick said he had cash flow problems because tenants were scarce for his office building. And though he was unable to pay, the county got its money, he noted, from investors who acquired tax certificates on his debt.

Tax certificate auctions serve as safety valves for local governments, allowing them to recoup unpaid taxes. Investors bid for certificates on unpaid tax bills, and when they win, they pay the delinquent bills themselves.

The delinquent property owner then has two years to pay the county the amount they owed, plus interest, which is capped at 18 percent by Florida law. The law also requires that the certificates be awarded to the bidder quoting the lowest interest rate.

If property owners pay the tax and interest within two years, they're in the clear. The county refunds the investor, plus the interest charged the delinquent taxpayer. If the owner doesn't pay, the investor can have the property auctioned at a tax deed sale.

Investors earlier this year bought tax certificates for Pridgen, Geiger and Broderick's delinquent accounts.

"We looked at it as a way of borrowing money in today's economic times," Broderick said of the certificate auction.

County commissioners said this week that had they known Pridgen and Broderick were behind on their taxes, they doubt they would have voted differently.

Several commissioners did say that in the future they want to know whether developers appearing before them are behind on their tax obligations. But they said each circumstance would be judged individually.

Commissioner Ken Welch, for instance, said Pridgen and Broderick have strong track records as corporate citizens. They appear to be victims of hard times, Welch said, not serial debtors of the type that would seriously concern him.

Broderick, however, managed to act quickly on Dec. 19, after talking with a reporter about this story.

"I'm paying my taxes by 5 o'clock," he said with a chuckle, a few hours after the interview. "So you're the Grinch that stole Christmas, boy."

Broderick paid his bills that day, along with interest as high as 10 percent on some parcels.

Will Van Sant can be reached at vansant@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4166.

Two developers owe Pinellas $645,783 in back taxes 12/26/08 [Last modified: Monday, December 29, 2008 11:54am]
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