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Tax man on scene, but only briefly

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Updated Oct 12, 2005

Pinellas County tax collectors took inventory of a Church of Scientology-owned building Tuesday, preparing to sell the contents to pay owed taxes.

The inventory at the Fort Harrison Hotel stopped after the church agreed to post a bond, officials said. The hotel is used as a Scientology retreat.

Scientology keeps its international spiritual headquarters in Clearwater and owns more than $20-million in property in the area. Critics call the organization a cult or a money-making group, but others say it is a bona fide religion.

The church and the county have long been at odds over taxes. The county regularly bills the church for real estate taxes and tangible personal property taxes, and the church files lawsuits saying it shouldn't have to pay.

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The county maintains that the church owes $6.6-million in taxes. The county recently sent the Church of Scientology notices that it should pay its 1991 tangible personal property taxes, Tax Collector O. Sanford Jasper said. Those are taxes businesses pay on equipment, such as machinery, computers and office equipment.

In past years, the church has posted a $10,000 bond while it pursued the matter in court.

This year the church had not responded to county notices demanding that it post another bond, so tax officials, accompanied by sheriff's deputies, arrived at the Scientology-owned hotel Tuesday morning. The tax officials had a court order permitting them to "levy upon, seize and sell" property to make up for the tax debt.

The officials explained that the church owed $57,520.99 in taxes on belongings at 13 sites in the Clearwater area, said Deputy Tax Collector Bob Joseph.

After the officials finished at the Fort Harrison Hotel, they planned to go to a second Scientology-owned building, an administrative building at 118 N Fort Harrison Ave. But the church produced the $10,000 bond and tax officials called off their inventory.

Scientology spokesman Richard Haworth said the church has routinely paid the bond in past years, sometimes even later in the year than now. He said it was the church's intention to post the bond this year as well.

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_ Staff writer Wayne Garcia contributed to this report.

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