Thursday, November 23, 2017
Politics

Parsing those claims against Bill Nelson

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A recent TV ad shows Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson as a down-home farmer in denim overalls, wielding a pitchfork and tending to six animated cows.

The point of the political attack: Nelson is using a farm facade to get out of paying his fair share of property taxes.

"After 40 years in politics, Bill Nelson has learned how to milk the system. He leased land that he owned for six cows, taking advantage of an agricultural tax loophole to dodge $43,000 in taxes just last year," says the ad from American Crossroads, the conservative super PAC founded by Karl Rove. "Then he sold the land for home development, pocketing at least $1.4 million."

Nelson is being challenged by Republican U.S. Rep. Connie Mack IV. Mack's campaign has its own sing-along cartoon ad called "Udder hypocrisy."

So are the charges true?

The attacks stem from a February 2012 Tampa Bay Times story that scrutinized Nelson's qualifications for a "greenbelt" property assessment, a designation that spares him from paying higher property taxes on his family's 55-acre pasture along the Indian River in Brevard County. Thanks to the "greenbelt" designation, Nelson's land is taxed at a much lower agricultural rate.

The greenbelt law was enacted in 1959 as a financial incentive for farmers to keep their land instead of selling to developers who wanted it for highways, shopping malls and homes.

Farmers are fond of the greenbelt law. Critics, though, say the law is too generous, too vague and invites abuse. A 2005 investigative series by the Miami Herald documented several instances of property owners keeping some farm animals or horticulture on land obviously intended for development.

The classification means less tax revenues going to local government.

Nelson does lease the land to cattlemen, though. The current lessee has a herd of about six cows and leases the land free of charge, though he is required to keep up with maintenance.

Nelson said the Crossroads ad is misleading because the land isn't intended for development.

"Of course, they don't tell you that that has been a cow pasture for 60 years," Nelson said in an interview. "That was my 4-H club project that started in the early '50s and has been ever since."

The land has been in Nelson's family since 1924. It has been a cattle pasture since the 1960s, including when Nelson raised and sold a herd of cattle to pay for his education at Yale University.

Still, the tax savings are considerable. Without the designation, he would have paid 13 times the amount of taxes that he did in 2011.

In 2011, the market value of Nelson's property was $2.76 million. Nelson got the lower agricultural value of $210,870 in 2011. Instead of paying $48,380 in property taxes, he paid nearly $3,696, according to tax records, a difference of more than $44,000.

The Brevard County property appraiser's office tried to remove Nelson's greenbelt designation in the past, but Nelson fought to keep it and won in court. (An inspector in 1999 went to his property and found no cows; Nelson argued they escaped via a hole in the fence.)

Contrary to the ad's suggestion, Nelson is not covertly planning to develop or resell his land, a spokesman said.

"You are not dodging taxes when you pay all the taxes that are owned on the property," said Dan McLaughlin, his spokesman.

We agree that American Crossroads is stretching the truth by claiming Nelson is "dodging" his taxes. That's a derogatory phrase commonly used for someone who doesn't pay what they owe. Though people may disagree with Nelson paying the lower agricultural rate based on the presence of six cows on a vast pasture, it's legal. As such, we rate that claim Half True.

As for selling the land for home development, Nelson sold the main house he lived in — adjacent to the pasture — when he moved to Tallahassee in the mid 1990s.

He later sold four more nearby lots after he moved to Washington. Two of these were residential lots that had houses on them. Two more were lots that he cut out of his pasture, so those had used the greenbelt exemption. The total for these four transactions to private homeowners is at least $1.4 million, the Times reported. Florida's greenbelt law does not require him to pay back part of his tax break.

Nelson's campaign does not dispute the $1.4 million total — they do dispute how American Crossroads presented the transactions. That total does not represent all of the money he received from the agricultural lots; it also includes the sales of two residential lots.

"I've looked at all the options on the rest of the property and I've decided not to develop it. I want to leave it to my kids," Nelson told the Times in February.

To us, American Crossroads leaves out critical details about the land sale. Enough to rate this claim Mostly False.

PolitiFact Florida is partnering with 10 News for the 2012 election. See video fact-checks at PolitiFact.com/Florida.

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