My humble and hard-working father often said, “Son, there are no free rides in life.” I believe all citizens can agree they are tired of giveaways to special interests by the government, and that should include property tax breaks for well-connected property owners.
The revised 1968 Florida Constitution eliminated a property tax exemption for businesses merely because they leased land from a government agency, putting an end to corporate welfare and implementing a system where one business could not have an unfair advantage over a competing business, merely because one was located on government property. Since then, the Florida Supreme Court has stated numerous times that a private business operating on government property can only receive a property tax exemption if it is performing a traditional and necessary government activity — a “governmental-governmental” purpose.
In the late 1990′s, litigation by the Tampa Port Authority and the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority resulted in dozens of properties leased to for-profit business being placed on the tax roll and thereby contributing to support schools, police, firefighters and infrastructure needs throughout Hillsborough County. Twenty years later, those properties continue to pay their fair share of taxes like the rest of us.
Recently, one of those tenants at the Tampa Port Authority, after paying taxes for those 20 years determined it no longer desired to contribute to Hillsborough County’s needs and engaged in protracted litigation to attempt to avoid taxation. In a detailed judgment, the court — citing decades of Florida Supreme Court decisions — stated without reservation that a shipyard was not entitled to a governmental exemption. The court said it was merely a for-profit business repairing ships for profit and was not involved in the administration of government.
Meanwhile, at Tampa International Airport and the smaller regional airports our annual review determined that a handful of businesses leasing land from the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority were not engaged in government activities and should be placed on the tax roll like other tenants. Primarily these businesses repair and sell aircraft and engage in the shipping of cargo and packages. Although dozens of tenants of the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority have been paying taxes for more than 20 years, the aviation authority surprisingly has chosen to engage in expensive litigation on behalf of these few tenants.
Although this dispute long predates the current economic disruption caused by the pandemic, I recognize that these are difficult times for some business owners. That is why I have assembled a first of its kind fact-finding task force to look into various tax-relief legislative options for business impacted by COVID-19. But a tax exemption merely because your landlord is a government agency is not recognized by the law. The property appraiser does not have the authority to ignore the law in favor of one property owner over another based on their location, number of employees or to whom they decide to give their campaign contributions.
Let me be clear: I have no issue with owners of the properties in question, and they have been treated no differently than any other constituent. I remain committed to providing open, honest and accountable service to the property owners of Hillsborough County. When I took office, I swore to uphold the law and ensure equity, fairness and transparency in Hillsborough County’s tax roll. Ultimately, the fact remains that when one property owner receives a tax exemption for which they do not qualify, others pay more.
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Bob Henriquez is the Hillsborough County Property Appraiser and a Certified Florida Appraiser.