CLEARWATER — A standoff between Pinellas and Pasco counties regarding a property tax bill on well fields Pinellas owns might need to be resolved by a judge.
Pinellas County commissioners voted 6-0 Tuesday to allow County Attorney Jim Bennett to seek a court injunction to stop Pasco from assessing property taxes on the 12,400 acres of well fields Pinellas owns there, known as the Al-Bar and Cross Bar ranches.
Bennett told commissioners Pasco officials have been unwilling to discuss the tax status, so he wants the option to seek the injunction to get a legal ruling on the county’s obligation to pay.
“They’re entrenched,” Bennett said. “My intention and my instruction to the lawyers is once we file in court, to try to mediate things with some idea ... to meet with their tax collector.”
Pinellas contends that, as a government entity, it is immune from paying property taxes on land used for a public purpose. Pasco Property Appraiser Mike Wells disagrees, and in recent years has been sending Pinellas a tax bill. Wells maintains the county’s tax immunity applies only to property within its owns boundaries.
Last year, that cost Pinellas $113,000, which the commission reluctantly agreed to pay in April 2014 after Pasco had issued tax certificates on the property. However, commissioners asked the county staff to negotiate with Pasco officials about future taxes, and for their attorneys to research the county’s legal position on withholding the payments.
Bennett said the staff could find no other instance in Florida where a government pays taxes on property it owns in another county. “It’s an absolutely unique situation,” he said.
Commissioners also agreed to allow Bennett to file a lawsuit that would name Pasco Tax Collector Mike Fasano and the Florida Department of Revenue, in addition to Wells, to establish jurisdiction because the lawsuit would be filed against Wells’ office and not against Pasco County.
Wells was not available for comment Tuesday, an employee in his office said. But Tax Collector Mike Fasano said he agrees with Wells’ position.
“I believe he’s doing the right thing, that Pinellas should be paying their taxes,” he said.
Fasano said Pinellas historically has paid the taxes until a couple of years ago. He said his office only sends out the bills and collects the money. It is up to Wells to determine the tax obligations of properties.
Bennett said the tax history is complicated. At one time, Pinellas made annual payments to Pasco in lieu of taxes as “a good neighbor.” Pasco later told Pinellas for years it didn’t owe any money, but the county continued to pay anyway, again as a good neighbor. Recently, he said, when the economy turned down, the property ended up on the tax rolls. “I don’t understand it,” he said.
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Meanwhile, Pinellas Administrator Mark Woodard and Pasco Administrator Michele Baker have been discussing the possible sale of the properties to Pasco. Property appraisals have come in at about $24 million for Cross Bar and $22 million for Al Bar, with another $5.5 million for the timber farming operation that is done there.
Former County Commissioner Susan Latvala urged the county to sell the property a year ago, which commissioners Kenneth Welch and Charlie Justice supported. Other commissioners said they were reluctant to let go of the property and to relinquish rights to the water in case the county needs it later.
Pasco Commission Chairman Ted Schrader said the appraisals “were about what I thought they would be.” The property, north of State Road 52 and east of U.S. 41, also is used for timber and straw farming.
“My objective is to keep the property from ever being developed,” Schrader said. “If they agreed to sell us a conservation easement, that would be fine with me.”
Another option would be for Pasco to buy the Al-Bar Ranch, plus the $2.1 million timber operation, he said. Tampa Bay Water owns the Cross Bar well field, which means it’s unlikely it could ever be developed.
“I’m open to any meaningful discussion,” Schrader said.
Fasano said Pinellas should sell the property to Pasco, which would quash the tax question permanently and allow Pasco to preserve the land.
“There is no reason for Pinellas County to own those properties anymore now that we have Tampa Bay Water,” he said.
Tampa Bay Water was created to help regulate water distribution in the region and to resolve often bitter water disputes between the counties in the 1970s and 1980s, when Pinellas bought the land and installed 17 wellheads to pump water to its growing population.
Tribune reporter Laura Kinsler contributed to this report.