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Cows leave barnyard odor on elections chief

Turns out a cow is a cow is a cow, legally speaking.

A cow —a bona-fide, potentially money-making, for-profit cow — is certainly a cow when it comes to getting a fat agricultural tax break.

A cow can be a cow whether the owner of the land upon which it grazes is an actual farmer, a developer biding his time or an elected official like Hillsborough Elections Supervisor Buddy Johnson.

Johnson, who rents out nearly 20 acres he owns for $20 a year to a cattle exhibitor who keeps a dozen or so grazing there, just won himself a "greenbelt" exemption.

This could save him more than $11,000 on his taxes. And it's all perfectly kosher, even if to some ears it still doesn't ring quite right.

To understand why this matters, consider Johnson's tenure as elections chief.

Among the notable moments: polling places moved without notifying voters by mail; $24,142 in hush money for a former aide to keep mum and not sue; and that deposition in which lawyers concluded Johnson could not answer many questions about his own office.

So maybe there was some comic relief when he made news by divvying up that chunk of land, dubbing it "Oak Creek Estates," renting the space dirt cheap to a businessman who exhibits cows at shows and going for that big greenbelt tax break.

People will tell you this has been done for years, particularly by developers before they're ready to develop. Johnson has said he has no such plans for his "estates."

And so, since the guy leasing the land shows and sells said cows, this was ruled a profitable enterprise.

As in, it's legit as long as somebody's able to make money.

So Johnson got his exemption, lowering his assessment from $679,607 to $137,459.

Even if that still seems smelly to you, even if it has the whiff of skirting at least the spirit of the rules, the property appraiser could not and should not hold Johnson to a higher standard than he would anyone else.

But we can.

Sorry, but with public service comes scrutiny. Along with that six-figure salary and prime parking space, you get an eye on how you conduct yourself, both as an elected official and a fellow citizen.

I'm not talking juicy details of a divorce or private family heartache. But we should notice if a public official, say, waters his lawn on the wrong days or gets great parking with his mother's handicapped tag even when he's sans mom or regularly bounces checks.

Or doesn't pay his taxes on time.

The Times' Jeff Testerman reported Johnson was delinquent on properties in both Hillsborough and Sarasota before he recently ponied up more than $10,000 to catch up.

So why should we care?

Because the people we trust to run things — commissioners, council members, even elections supervisors — should be on solid ground.

They should not give even the appearance of financial shakiness that could make them vulnerable.

At a bare minimum, we want them making sound, responsible, even unremarkable decisions in their public and private lives.

When you're driving along looking out the fields where the bovine graze, yep, a cow is a cow is a cow.

Until you look closer, squint a little and suddenly see a whole lot more.

Cows leave barnyard odor on elections chief 07/01/08 [Last modified: Friday, July 4, 2008 1:42pm]
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