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Jim Smith land deal becomes campaign bludgeon

Jim Smith’s $225K deal with Pinellas may haunt his top deputy.

Jim Smith’s $225K deal with Pinellas may haunt his top deputy.

Should Property Appraiser candidate Pam Dubov share blame for the scandal that ensnared and tainted her former boss Jim Smith last year?

You bet, says Frank Gregoire, Dubov's opponent in the Republican primary.

To make that point, Gregoire on Friday visited the 1.5-acre parcel on Brooker Creek that inspired headlines and a grand jury probe after Smith sold it to the county for nearly four times its assessed value.

Gregoire went to the lot, secluded from Tarpon Woods Boulevard and overgrown by vegetation, armed with paperwork showing the values Smith's office gave the land from 1999 to 2007. He also had values given to four adjacent parcels during the same period.

Those four parcels, which unlike Smith's, are developed, show steady upticks in value. So does Smith's over the whole period, though the year-to-year changes are more erratic and declines in value more frequent.

That doesn't make sense, Gregoire says. He says the trend in the value of Smith's lot shouldn't be so dissimilar given that all five parcels are close by and subject to the same general economic forces. It doesn't help that Smith, who is not seeking re-election, was paid $225,000 for the land when it was valued at $59,400.

For Gregoire, 55, the numbers indicate failed leadership in the Appraiser's Office. He suggested that Dubov, a 19-year veteran of the office and Smith's chief deputy until she resigned to run in June, must have known something was amiss and was obligated to speak out. Her failure to do so, he suggested, should not sit well with taxpayers. Gregoire runs a private appraisal business in St. Petersburg.

Dubov, 52, said her opponent's premises and conclusion are flawed and reveal unfamiliarity with how governments go about putting values on property. She resents having her integrity questioned and said Gregoire is grasping.

"I never believed there was anything to blow the whistle on," Dubov said. "And the suggestion that I should have comes from a candidate who doesn't have anything else to hang his hat on."

Smith's land was so unlike those Gregoire used for comparison as to make his assertions ridiculous, Dubov said.

First, she said, it is vacant and undeveloped, a cast-off parcel from a nearby subdivision largely unsuited for building because of wetlands issues.

Second, it is in Tarpon Woods, while Gregoire's comparison properties are in an East Lake Woodlands subdivision called Turtle Creek. Not only are different methods used to value vacant castoffs as opposed to developed lots with houses on them, she said, but land in Turtle Creek is historically more expensive.

None of the values given to Smith's property from the time he purchased the land in 1994 are suspect, said Dubov, so there was nothing to go public about.

Dubov said an appraisal the county paid to have done in order to put a sales price on Smith's property did seem questionable. But Dubov said she did not see the document until after the sale, at which time the property came off the tax rolls because it became publicly owned.

As the deal was being developed, Dubov said she tried to warn Smith to lower his price.

She told him that if he was going to sell land to the county, keep the price at $76,100, a comparable sales figure the office had given the lot in 2006. But don't ask for $225,000. The public, she said she told Smith, would never understand him getting nearly four times the assessed value for the land.

"He said, 'I'm not going to do that,' " Dubov recalled. "It was his decision, not mine."

Smith, who maintains that he was grievously wronged when a crew for the county went on his land and damaged it, said he told Dubov he was not going to give the property away.

"I said, 'yeah, you're right, perception is reality, but sometimes you have to stand on principle,'" he said.

The Republican primary is Aug. 26. The winner faces Democrat Ben Friedlander in the general election Nov. 4.

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

>>Fast facts

Gregoire's comparisons

Property appraiser candidate Frank Gregoire says the assessments given to the land Jim Smith sold to Pinellas County are out of line with those assigned to nearby properties.

The value of Smith's property, for example, rose from $26,600 in 1999 to $59,400 in 2006. It was reassessed after he sold it at $147,200 in 2007.

In one of his sample comparisons, Gregoire pointed to a home on Hampton Court whose assessed value rose from $407,900 in 1999 to $779,300 in 2007.

One way to look at it: Over the same time, Smith's assessed value increased by many fewer dollars but by a much greater percentage.

Jim Smith land deal becomes campaign bludgeon 07/25/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 30, 2008 1:58pm]
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