Pinellas County Tax Collector Diane Nelson and her staff deserve credit for finally requiring the Church of Scientology to collect bed taxes at its five busy hotels in downtown Clearwater — though it shouldn't have taken 10 years and a call from a St. Petersburg Times reporter to get the ball rolling. Now state officials need to ensure that the church's hotels also are paying sales taxes. Allowing the church's hotels to dodge their taxes is unfair to every other taxpayer in the state. • The Church of Scientology is exempted from paying taxes on its facilities used for religious purposes, but not for others such as hotels and restaurants. Yet no one has a good excuse why the county and state have never required the church hotels — including downtown Clearwater's landmark Fort Harrison Hotel — to pay up. The neglect had going on for decades and cost the county millions.
Former Pinellas Tax Collector Fred Petty, who served during the 1990s, told the St. Petersburg Times, "I can't give you a good reason as to why, other than I didn't know of any good reason to go after them." Never mind that the church was running hotels within sight of his office, renting thousands of hotel room nights each year and did not have a legal exemption from paying the tourist tax. The answer from Nelson, first elected in 2000, isn't any better: "Why we didn't do it earlier, I don't know other than … someone brought it to our attention."
That "someone," a former Times reporter, called Nelson's office in 2008 to ask for records on the church's tax payments. The call prompted Nelson's chief tax auditor, Erin Sullivan, to wonder why the church wasn't paying the tourist tax. The 5-cent tax on hotel accommodations, collected in Pinellas county since 1978, is used to promote tourism, pay the debt on area baseball stadiums and renourish beaches.
The Scientology hotels' failure to collect the tax from their guests has denied the Pinellas tourist industry and the public millions of dollars over the years. Sullivan started negotiations with church representatives, and a few months ago the hotels finally began collecting the bed tax and remitting it to the county.
Scientology hotels also should be collecting the additional 7 percent sales tax on room rentals, just like other commercial hotels, but it isn't clear whether they do. State officials won't say, citing a state law that keeps virtually all information about registered taxpayers confidential. The law goes too far, giving potential tax scofflaws cover. While it is understandable that the details of tax records should be private, the public ought to be able to find out whether a commercial entity pays taxes.
The Church of Scientology owes the community full payment of all its tax obligations. And state and local revenue officials owe the public dedicated, evenhanded enforcement of all tax laws. They are shortchanging the public and playing favorites if, for any reason, they let that duty slide.