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Unpaid taxes pose problem for board

After learning in October that Grubbs Construction was delinquent in paying its local taxes, the Hernando County School Board postponed action on a bid involving the Brooksville firm.

Board members wanted to know if they could reject Grubbs as a provider of site construction services because of its tax status.

On Tuesday, their attorney told them, "No."

The request for proposals on the contract under consideration had no such requirement, board lawyer Karen Gaffney said, and therefore back taxes could not factor into approving the bid.

It's fine if the board wants to set a condition of being current in property and intangible taxes for future business dealings, Gaffney said. But she recommended that the board have its purchasing department review such a proposal before enacting it.

Board member Robert Wiggins was keen on adding such a restriction. He said so during the meeting, and afterward made his desire clear to Superintendent Wendy Tellone.

"In the future, I am going to follow up on requesting that contractors who bid _ maybe it could be in all our purchase requests _ they be current or not delinquent in their local taxes," Wiggins said. "Even if they're in Hillsborough or Polk or Manatee. In their home county, they should not be delinquent."

He made a distinction for companies legally disputing their taxes.

Some board members were open to the idea.

"There are some extenuating circumstances where people don't pay their taxes on time. Other than that, I don't think they should even apply," board member Sandra Nicholson said.

If companies want to make money from the school district, Nicholson said, they should pay the taxes that support the district. She questioned the integrity of a business that does not pay its legally binding bills.

"I have to pay my rent. I have to pay my taxes. I have to pay my bills," she said. "That's the way I run my home and business."

Others were more suspicious of the concept.

"It really depends on why" a company has not paid its taxes, Chairman John Druzbick said. "Is it because other companies are not paying them and they cannot make the payment?"

He suggested that Grubbs has not paid more than $200,000 in taxes for that reason. Denying them school district jobs could hurt the local economy more than it helps, he said.

"That's not necessarily always the only answer," Druzbick said.

Gaffney advised the board that the County Commission had considered the issue and decided not to make payment of local taxes a requirement to win county work.

Senior Assistant County Attorney Kent Weissinger said Wednesday that one Florida county, Volusia, has such a rule and another, Citrus, is drafting an ordinance. So such action would be legal, he said. The question is whether it would help or harm the government, he added.

County purchasing director Jim Gantt said limiting the number of bidders could drive up costs. Investigating and enforcing the rule, he continued, could lead to the creation of an additional layer of bureaucracy.

"It's not as simplistic as it sounds," Gantt said. "Bottom line is, the cost-benefit just isn't there."

He suggested that the tax collector's office should do its job, and the other government entities might be better served staying out of it.

Gaffney offered similar view.

"Insomuch as payment of ad valorem taxes does not necessarily reflect a company's inability to perform under the proposed bid, it it my recommendation that the board continue to utilize its current bid practices," she wrote in a memo.

Wiggins was not deterred.

"I still think we should pursue it," he said Wednesday. "I'm sure Karen Gaffney can come up with some good legalese to put in there."