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Cattle lease could save Hillsborough elections chief thousands in taxes

Hillsborough Elections Supervisor Buddy Johnson

Hillsborough Elections Supervisor Buddy Johnson

TAMPA — In seeking a $608,573 agricultural tax exemption on a rural tract he bought last year, Hillsborough County Elections Supervisor Buddy Johnson is relying on an annual lease of his land to a part-time farmer for $1 per acre.

Johnson is allowing the farmer to use his 19.98 acres for cattle grazing for $20 a year. With the cows on his land, Johnson hopes to be granted a "greenbelt" tax exemption that could knock more than $12,000 off his tax bill.

The part-time farmer who agreed to lease Johnson's property off Thonotosassa Road in Plant City is William Kenneth Grimmer, 41, a trucker licensed to operate tank trucks and semitrailer trucks.

Reached on his cell phone in Pensacola on Friday, Grimmer said he owns 16 head of cattle and placed 11 of them on Johnson's land last year after agreeing to the $1-per-acre lease.

"He's not making any money off that property with a $20 lease, I can tell you that," said Grimmer, who has the responsibility to maintain the property as pasture land.

But with the Grimmer cows grazing on his new property, Johnson has filed applications for greenbelt tax exemptions that could reduce the assessment of his land from $614,428 to $5,855. That would lower his property tax bill from $12,626 to $120.

Grimmer said all his cows are being raised for exhibition in FFA shows around the Southeast.

That is likely to be a key factor in the property appraiser's determination of Johnson's exemption requests.

Florida law allows greenbelt exemptions where there is a "bona fide agricultural use with a reasonable expectation of making a profit," according to Will Shepherd, general counsel for the office of Hillsborough Property Appraiser Rob Turner, whose office has until July 1 to rule on some 600 greenbelt applications.

Last year, in denying greenbelt status to an Odessa citrus grove overseen by Pinellas lawyer Tom Minkoff, Turner's staff found that although the operation used tractors, fertilizer sprayers, packing facilities and had citrus sales, it did not make a profit.

Turner's office concluded that Minkoff's property, which featured a lakefront home used as an occasional weekend retreat, was the site of activity that was "more hobby than business." Minkoff appealed the ruling stripping his groves of greenbelt status, but a special master upheld Turner's ruling.

Now, Johnson and his tenant, Grimmer, will have to prove that the livestock grazing on the Thonotosassa land aren't just a hobby but constitute a moneymaking, commercial operation.

"It's too early in the process for a decision," said Chief Deputy Property Appraiser Warren Weathers. "At this point we are still waiting for paperwork to come in and just beginning to make inspections."

Weathers said his office would ask for Grimmer's tax returns to test for agricultural profitability, as was done in the Minkoff case.

Grimmer said it was his idea, not Johnson's, to place his cattle on Johnson's property. Though agricultural land is still plentiful in Hillsborough, with an estimated 220,000 acres in use, Grimmer sought permission to use Johnson's property last March, almost immediately after Johnson bought it for $800,000.

"If you ask me, I think he overpaid for that property," said Grimmer. "But land in that area has been used for cattle grazing for years."

Grimmer said he moved his cattle to the Thonotosassa tract in May, two months after Johnson's purchase. Then, in July, two months after the cows had been moved to his property, Johnson platted the tract, subdividing it into six lots and naming it Oak Creek Estates.

Yet Johnson says he has no intention of developing the oak-shrouded land. He has moved into a 884-square-foot clapboard home at the rear of the property and says he hopes his three children will one day occupy homes on adjoining lots.

Johnson, who is up for re-election this year, declined to answer questions forwarded to his office this week about the tax matters. He did not return a call from the St. Petersburg Times on Friday.

"I don't quite understand what the issue is," Johnson said in a telephone call broadcast Thursday morning by WFLA radio. "They haven't even ruled on (the greenbelt applications). It's not like I put one orange tree in the front yard. That's not something Buddy Johnson would do."

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report.
Jeff Testerman can be reached
at testerman@sptimes.com
or (813) 226-3422.

Cattle lease could save Hillsborough elections chief thousands in taxes 03/14/08 [Last modified: Thursday, March 20, 2008 9:02am]
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