Thursday, February 22, 2018
Editorials

Editorial: Pinellas should pay its debt on land

If Pinellas County is too arrogant or too busy to pay its property tax bills in a timely manner, then it should it sell its real estate holdings in Pasco County or at least grant greater public access to the 12,400 acres known as the Cross Bar and Al Bar ranches.

For the second straight year, Pinellas County irresponsibly ignored its Pasco tax bill and is more than $100,000 in arrears to its neighbor. The land, acquired originally as a groundwater source, includes an educational center and profitmaking 5,000-acre pine tree farm. The 17 wellheads on the site are now owned by Tampa Bay Water, and regional water policies have made obsolete the strategy of each local government hoarding parochial water supplies. There is no public purpose for Pinellas County government to continue to own this land in Pasco County.

Two months ago, the Pinellas County Commission unreasonably rejected Pasco's overtures to buy the land and turn it into a publicly accessible wildlife preserve with hiking and bicycle trails. Then Pinellas County's legal staff sent a March 27 letter to Pasco Tax Collector Mike Fasano saying the land was tax-exempt and Pinellas would cease its previous voluntary tax payments.

Pinellas made the same contention in 2013 in a dispute that remains unresolved. If it fails to settle last year's account by April 1, 2015, the land can be sold at auction. Pinellas contends that won't happen, but the deadline means a likely court fight — a position that confounds at lease one Pinellas commissioner who doesn't recall authorizing a tax dispute with a neighboring county. "There's a lot of ways we can collaborate with our partners more effectively,'' said Commissioner Ken Welch, who advocated selling the land to Pasco County.

There are no financial constraints motivating the tax delinquency. The balance sheet in a 2012 audit indicates Pinellas has never been in a better position to fulfill the ranch's financial obligations. The agri-timber operations turned a profit in 2011 and were expected to do so for another decade. Meanwhile, the Pasco School District, for the first time, paid $27,600 to Pinellas, or half the annual operating expenses, at the education center on the premises. The ranch showed a $385,000 gross operating profit in 2011 even after making its nearly $50,000 tax payment to Pasco. Not bad for somebody crying poor mouth.

Pasco taxpayers and Pinellas utility customers shouldn't be asked to finance an unnecessary legal battle between two publicly funded entities. Pinellas County should pay its debts and then divest itself of this land.

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