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Cows help Buddy Johnson cut his property taxes by thousands

TAMPA — After leasing his property to a cow exhibitor for $20 a year, Hillsborough Elections Supervisor Buddy Johnson has won an agricultural tax exemption that reduces the taxable value of his property by more than $560,000.

The agricultural "greenbelt" exemption applies to a 19.98-acre property Johnson purchased off Thonotosassa Road in Plant City last year. It could lower his 2008 property tax bill from $14,300 to $2,820, depending on the tax rate set by local lawmakers.

Property Appraiser Rob Turner ruled Friday that Johnson was entitled to the tax break because the businessman leasing his land, William Kenneth Grimmer, is involved in a startup agricultural operation that shows profitability, even though only 11 or 12 cows graze Johnson's land.

"His application was given the same scrutiny as other greenbelt applications," said Warren Weathers, Turner's deputy appraiser. "Mr. Johnson and Mr. Grimmer followed the law as set by the Florida Legislature and as established by court precedents, and the property is entitled to the agricultural exemption."

Inspectors visited Johnson's property four times and obtained financial records from Grimmer twice before Turner's office approved the tax exemption. Turner determined that Grimmer's cattle, typically exhibited at Future Farmers of America shows, not only provide an educational value in the livestock industry, but also produce income in the startup business when Grimmer sells cows after exhibitions.

Turner denied the exemption on nearly 3 acres of Johnson's land because the property was inadequately fenced, lowlands or part of a driveway and yard around the home ineligible for greenbelt status.

Johnson declined comment on the exemption ruling Friday.

Paid an annual salary of $132,414, Johnson was delinquent in paying his property taxes this year on the Thonotosassa tract, as well as on a Sarasota condo and on a home and a vacant lot he sold last year. In April and May, Johnson paid $10,939 to catch up on his back taxes.

This month, a $1,474 lien was filed against Johnson for failing to pay the quarterly maintenance and cable TV fees on the Rivo at Ringling condo in Sarasota that he purchased in 2006 for $476,800.

The exemption ruling Friday lowers the assessment of the Thonotosassa property from $679,607 to $137,459, which includes a $29,322 valuation for Johnson's home, an 884-square-foot frame structure built in 1930.

Johnson's own estimate of the value of home and surrounding acreage is considerably higher. In a disclosure form filed this month when he qualified to run for re-election, Johnson put the value of his "personal residence" at the end of last year at $1.35-million.

Had Johnson listed his property at what he paid for it and not $1.35 million, his net worth on his financial disclosure form would have been less than zero.

"The value we place on the property is based on actual sales," said Weathers. "Mr. Johnson may have a different opinion from a private appraiser, and if he believes it has a different value, we'd be happy to see any information he can supply."

Johnson bought the Thonotosassa property in March 2007 for $800,000, under a company he called Fort Bully East. He paid for a survey, subdivided the property into six lots and filed a plat of the tract under the name, "Oak Creek Estates." Asked by the St. Petersburg Times about development plans, Johnson said he had none, he only wished that his three grown children might one day build homes next to his.

Jeff Testerman can be reached at (813) 226-3422 or testerman@sptimes.com.

.Fast facts

By the numbers

Buddy Johnson's 19.98 acre tract and small home off Thonotosassa Road

$800,000: Price Johnson paid in March 2007

$1.35-million: Value at the end of 2007, according to Johnson's disclosure filed this month

$697,607: Property appraiser's assessment, before greenbelt application

$137,459: Property appraiser's assessment, after granting greenbelt tax exemption

$14,300: Tax bill before greenbelt exemption

$2,820: Tax bill after greenbelt exemption

12: Cows grazing on Johnson's property

$20: Annual amount Johnson charges for grazing rights

Cows help Buddy Johnson cut his property taxes by thousands 06/27/08 [Last modified: Friday, July 4, 2008 12:00pm]
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