Could a Florida tax dispute throw county immunity law into chaos?

A decade-long property tax dispute between Pinellas and Pasco counties will be settled soon. Some argue it could have an unintended consequence.
The Cross Bar Ranch, shown here, and the Al Bar Ranch are at the heart of a property-tax dispute between Pinellas and Pasco counties that Pinellas's attorneys, and some observers, say could have unintended consequences.
The Cross Bar Ranch, shown here, and the Al Bar Ranch are at the heart of a property-tax dispute between Pinellas and Pasco counties that Pinellas's attorneys, and some observers, say could have unintended consequences. [ CHRIS URSO | Times (2007) ]
Published Dec. 16, 2022|Updated Dec. 16, 2022

Last week, a pair of attorneys who work for Pinellas County headed north to Tallahassee, to give arguments in a state Supreme Court case about whether or not their government should pay taxes on land it owns in Pasco County.

They arrived unscathed. But say they hadn’t — a hypothetical that came up in the arguments, in court documents, in interviews. Say, after leaving Pinellas, they caused a car wreck in which someone else was hurt. That person could sue Pinellas County, but there’d be a $200,000 limit on damages, because the attorneys were working in an official capacity: They were on the way to court.

That cap has to do with sovereign immunity, a legal doctrine that generally prevents people from suing the government. Legislatures can waive this right; in Florida, you can sue a county or the state over injury, death or property damage due to negligence or wrongdoing. But Florida discourages these suits by capping how much someone wronged may collect.

Sovereign immunity is also the basis for why government generally doesn’t have to pay property taxes. At issue in the case is something long unresolved under Florida law: whether it should apply to property owned outside its borders.

Pasco argues that it shouldn’t. But Pinellas County’s lawyers and others warn that if the Supreme Court isn’t careful with its ruling in the tax case, it could throw sovereign immunity in Florida into chaos.

They said it could make it far easier for people to sue counties for more things and bigger money — in the case of, say, an out-of-county car crash — “flinging wide the doors of the county’s treasury,” as the Florida Association of County Attorneys put it in a brief urging the court’s caution.

“This is a statewide issue,” Pinellas County Administrator Barry Burton said last week at a County Commission session. “It’s far greater than the issue of money.”

Even a more narrow ruling will put to bed a decade-long dispute between the neighboring counties with a history dating to Tampa Bay’s water wars.

The land at the heart of the suit is 12,400 acres in northern Pasco collectively known as the Cross Bar and Al Bar ranches. Pinellas bought the land in the 1970s and 80s to pump it for water, in an era when counties competed for water resources. Now regional water supplier Tampa Bay Water owns the wells there, and Pinellas harvests its timber and pine straw.

For years, Pinellas paid property taxes to Pasco. Then an audit suggested it was exempt from paying the tax. The resulting standoff between the two counties eventually led Pinellas to sue Pasco’s property appraiser and tax collector. (In 2022, the tax bill for the ranch properties combined came to about $55,000.)

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Pinellas won the first round, with a circuit court judge agreeing that since counties get their sovereignty from the same state, they can’t tax each other.

Pasco appealed and won. In 2019, the judges at the Second District Court of Appeal noted there wasn’t county-to-county precedent, but cited other examples: States aren’t immune from paying property taxes in other states; tribal nations aren’t immune on property outside tribal borders either. Two different counties inherently couldn’t be sovereign in the same place, one of the judges determined, and quoted the 1986 movie “Highlander:” “There can be only one.”

This time, Pinellas appealed, and the state Supreme Court finally agreed to take up the case earlier this year. Pinellas’s attorneys said that, aside from their desire to win the tax case, they fear the appeals court’s ruling would set an overly broad precedent: It would limit a county’s sovereign immunity, in all senses, to its own borders.

The Florida Association of County Attorneys had the same concern, writing in a brief that it didn’t care who won, just that the Supreme Court narrow the scope of the ruling.

A broad precedent, it said, could open the floodgates. What if someone gets hurt on county-owned land outside the county’s borders, it asked — could they sue without the county getting any immunity protections? What if a county official goes to a conference elsewhere in the state, makes a verbal deal with a vendor they’re not authorized to make, then the county doesn’t follow through — could the vendor sue to enforce the “contract,” which they currently can’t?

Don Crowell, one of the Pinellas attorneys, said it would force counties to reconsider how they do business, as any of the work trips county employees frequently make would suddenly be riskier.

“Who pays our liabilities? The taxpayers,” he said in an interview. “How do you balance those kinds of risks with work that you have to do on behalf of supporting governmental functions?”

Pasco emphasized it was not seeking a broad ruling. Loren Levy, the attorney representing the property appraiser’s office, said in oral arguments he was focused only on tax law, not tort law, the kind that covers suits related to injury, death and damage.

“I think it would be a fairly straightforward matter for the court to say in its opinion that it’s not addressing the tort immunity issue,” he told the court.

It will likely will be months before the case is decided, Crowell said.

In the meantime, Pinellas has been paying taxes on the ranch land again, said Pasco County Tax Collector Mike Fasano — it started in 2020, after the appeals court ruling. If Pinellas loses at the Supreme Court, it’ll owe back taxes that now stand at more than $144,000.