Pasco County shouldn't be partners with a tax delinquent, and elected commissioners shouldn't rationalize property tax tardiness as an acceptable business decision from a landowner contributing to their re-election campaigns.
As Times staff writer Rich Shopes reported, SunWest Acquisition, the owner of land earmarked for the proposed SunWest Harbourtowne waterfront resort and residential development in Aripeka, hasn't paid its Pasco County property tax bills since 2010. SunWest is more than $53,000 in arrears with interest accruing each month. Company president John Gary Grubbs also is tardy on a residential tax bill in Hernando County for the 2012 tax year.
It's not a new strategy. The company was in arrears on its 2008 property taxes when commissioners gave final approval to the SunWest Harbourtowne project on March 30, 2010. Two days later, SunWest went delinquent on its 2009 taxes as well. (The company eventually paid its taxes and penalties nine months later.) That scenario could not be repeated under a 2012 revision to the county land development code that requires property owners to be current on their tax obligations before land use changes will be considered.
It's a logical rule to ensure tax delinquents aren't getting a pass on paying their fair share for the cost of government while simultaneously adding to the government's expense. Yet, while SunWest's 2011 and 2012 tax bills have been in arrears, the county has spent time and energy trying to obtain a dredging permit that would add new Gulf access for county boaters, but also greatly enhance the value of the SunWest property and enrich Grubbs. For tax purposes, SunWest's 18 parcels in Aripeka are appraised at just less than $1.8 million. Two years ago, Grubbs told a newspaper his asking price was $100 million for the development rights to the property.
SunWest and Pasco County are the original applicants and now appellants for a permit to dredge a 4-mile-long channel to be used by boaters launching from a county park on the south and from the planned luxury resort and residential community on the north. When the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers rejected the permit application last year, commissioners agreed to participate in the appeal in name only after Grubbs said he would handle the costs.
But Bob Carpenter, president of BCPeabody, the company hired by SunWest to shepherd the application through environmental reviews, volunteered in a December interview that he had been off Grubbs' payroll for 2 ½ years and described himself now as an unpaid consultant to Pasco County. In November, Carpenter and Commission Chairman Jack Mariano authored a scathing letter, signed by the commissioner, asking Gov. Rick Scott to intercede in the permit appeal.
During that same December interview, Mariano said he was unaware of SunWest's tax delinquencies. Later, he told reporter Shopes he had no problem with the company's dawdling payments because the county had recouped the revenue through tax certificate sales.
Mariano should consider the insulting message he is sending to 96 percent of Pasco property owners who pay their tax bills in a timely manner each year. Would he have a problem if everyone chose SunWest's payment schedule? Grubbs, meanwhile, should reconsider his company's priorities. The tax certificate sale for SunWest's 2011 delinquency came two months before Grubbs and his companies bundled $1,500 in contributions to Mariano's 2012 re-election campaign. SunWest also contributed to Commissioner Ted Schrader's 2012 re-election.
Politicking isn't an acceptable substitute for civic responsibility. No one relishes paying taxes, but a fair system with timely remuneration is essential to a thriving community providing its residents and property owners with efficient law enforcement, fire protection, ambulances, schools, parks, libraries, elderly nutrition and other public services. Grubbs said SunWest will settle its accounts by March 1. It should. A company looking for someone else to invest hundreds of millions of dollars into Pasco County's residential and tourism market should be willing to make its own much smaller investment to finance the quality of life attributes that draw people here.