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  1. News

Lake Jovita resident wants monks and nuns to pay property taxes in St. Leo

Brother James Hallett of Saint Leo Abbey says he is open to the idea, but did not hear any proposal for how the abbey would pay property taxes to the town.

ST. LEO — As president of the homeowners association for Lake Jovita Golf and Country Club, Ronnie Deese has long argued his neighbors shoulder too much of the tax burden for tiny St. Leo.

On Monday night, he suggested several alternatives. Among them: The nuns and monks should pitch in to the city's coffers, too.

Deese proposed that two of the town's largest landowners — St. Leo Abbey and Holy Name Monastery — pay property taxes even though as religious organizations much of their property is exempt. He said with two town commissioners — Sister Donna DeWitt, a member of the monastery, and Brother James Hallett, one of the 19 monks at the abbey — making tax policy decisions for the town, their organizations should volunteer to pay property taxes.

"It would be the Christian thing to do," Deese said.

Hallett told the Times on Tuesday that he was open to Deese's arguments, but did not hear any proposal for how the abbey would pay property taxes to the town.

"It's my understanding, from what he was saying, is (that) we should just cut the town a check, and I'm not in favor of that," Hallett said. "There needs to be some legal mechanism there."

St. Leo, a town of around 1,300 with an annual budget of $1.5 million, has a two-pronged predicament. Much of the land in town belongs to tax-exempt organizations like the abbey, the monastery and Saint Leo University.

Then there's the issue with Lake Jovita: The majority of that community sits in unincorporated Pasco County. But about 83 homes, or about 10 percent of the lots in Lake Jovita, fall inside the city limits. Those homes shoulder nearly 80 percent of the tax burden for the town, which levies $1.15 per $1,000 in taxable property, so for a $180,000 home, the St. Leo tax bill is $207.

Deese told the commission that the property tax burden on Lake Jovita residents "will never be fair" as the newer homes in the subdivision will always assess higher than the older housing stock in the town. He said residents in Lake Jovita paid $34,517 in property taxes to the town in 2012, while the contribution from outside the subdivision was $10,047.

That coupled with the fact that the majority of the land in St. Leo is owned by tax-exempt religious and educational institutions means Lake Jovita residents will always bear the bigger burden, he said.

Deese also argued that Lake Jovita residents are being charged twice for Pasco County Sheriff's Office services. They pay St. Leo taxes, part of which go toward a $78,000 contract for Pasco deputy patrols, while also paying county taxes that fund the sheriff's budget — on top of homeowner's association dues for security in the gated community.

"You pay for your sheriff's service, then you turn around a pay for it again," Deese said.

It all amounts to paying the town taxes for no services other than garbage collection in return, Deese argued.

Deese has made these arguments before, but on Monday night he faced a new commission, with newly sworn-in commissioners James Wells and Robert Inslee, who are both Lake Jovita residents. Their votes, coupled with that of Lake Jovita resident and Town Mayor John Gardner, give the neighborhood a majority on the five-person commission.

And if Wells' comments during his first meeting vowing to change the status quo were any indication, Deese may have found receptive ears to his arguments.

"The constituency here is not happy," Wells said.

Hallett said he is also amenable to reducing the property tax rate. The commission agreed to address Deese's concerns during a budget meeting next month.

"It was certainly a first attempt at looking at what residents are generating for the town, which is a conversation that needs to take place," Hallett said of Monday's meeting.