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  1. Pasco

Pasco to Pinellas: Pay up on property taxes, everybody else does.

A state appeals court has rejected Pinellas County's argument that it shouldn't have to pay property taxes on its holdings in neighboring Pasco County.

In a ruling issued Friday, the 2nd District Court of Appeal said Pinellas is not immune from taxation on the 12,400 acres, known collectively as the Cross Bar and Al Bar ranches, in northern Pasco. The ruling reversed an earlier circuit court decision in Pinellas' favor that Pasco Property Appraiser Gary Joiner had appealed.

"We don't feel that anybody should be exempt,'' Joiner said. "Our feeling is when you purchase something in another county you ought to pay the taxes on it.''

Pinellas' outstanding tax bill on the property is more than $194,000, said Pasco Tax Collector Mike Fasano.

Pinellas bought the land in the 1970s and 1980s amid heavy competition for water sources. The wells there and on 17 acres around them are now owned by regional water supplier Tampa Bay Water. Pinellas uses some of the rest of the land for timber and pine straw harvesting and has rejected previous Pasco attempts to acquire the land for preservation.

Pinellas always had paid the property taxes on the land until an audit earlier this decade from the Pinellas County Clerk and Comptroller suggested the parcels may be exempt. Pinellas eventually acquiesced and paid its 2013 taxes, but filed suit against Pasco's property appraiser and tax collector in 2015, saying the county's sovereign immunity extended to land it owned in other locations.

Joiner argued it would be akin to Pasco buying the Don CeSar on St. Pete Beach, operating it as a lucrative, for-profit enterprise and then claiming a tax exemption because it is county-government owned.

The appeals court majority agreed and said Pinellas County's arguments cited no authority to support its position.

"...This court is unaware of any political entity — not states, not Indian tribes, not nations — that can claim sovereign immunity from taxation for its extraterritorial land holdings. Pinellas County apparently aims to be the first,'' the court said.

Judge Anthony K. Black dissented, saying a county derives its tax immunity from the state's sovereignty, so that tax exemption must extend across Florida, not just to a county's own boundaries.

The ruling remands the case back to Pasco Circuit Court for further proceedings. Commissioner Ken Welch, who previously had favored selling the property to Pasco, declined comment Friday until he could be briefed by the county's legal staff. Pasco officials, however, claimed victory.

"It will require them to pay property taxes, no different from anybody else,'' said Fasano. "We're ready to collect.''

Contact C.T. Bowen at ctbowen@tampabay.com or (813) 435-7306. Follow @CTBowen2.

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