Buddy Johnson is not a rancher. He is Hillsborough's elections supervisor, and can barely do that. But Johnson scored a huge tax break last week after exploiting a law aimed at helping Florida agriculture. Good ol' Buddy — taking taxpayers' money as salary while declining to pay his own fair share.
After years of nonstop embarrassment, Johnson is beyond the point of surprising us, though the tax dodge captures what is wrong at the core of his ethics and concept of public service. Hillsborough's property appraiser ruled that Johnson was entitled to the tax break because a businessman leasing his land is involved with a startup agricultural operation. That's a pretty heady way to describe what's happening on Johnson's property in east Hillsborough, where a truck driver who moonlights with Future Farmers of America has 11 or 12 show cows grazing on Johnson's land.
The appraiser said the operation met the requirements of the law and precedents set by the courts — in other words, blame the Legislature. But you should also blame Johnson. At a time taxpayers are struggling to keep their homes and governments are doing more with less, Johnson rationalized that the cow-leasing scheme was not only an appropriate application of public policy but that it passed the smell test. We don't need to even get into his back taxes.
The ruling lowers the assessment on Johnson's property to $137,459, from $679,607, which could lower his 2008 tax bill to $2,820 from $14,300. And if that seems a lot given his modest contribution to the agriculture industry, consider this: At the same time Johnson was using the cows to drive down the taxable worth of his property, he was reporting in financial disclosures to the state that the value of his land had soared, to $1.35-million from the $800,000 he paid just months before — this as the real estate market tanked. That value helped Johnson avoid reporting a negative net worth as he stands for re-election. As if that is his biggest image problem.