CLEARWATER — Shortly after Pinellas County commissioners voted unanimously to fire County Administrator Bob LaSala, they gave staff clear instructions to pay more than $110,000 in back taxes owed to Pasco County for the Crossbar and Al-Bar ranches.
The dispute with Pasco was one of several lingering problems that led to LaSala’s ouster. Pinellas County bought the 12,500 acres in north Pasco nearly 40 years ago, during the height of the region’s water wars. Tampa Bay Water now owns the wellheads, but Pinellas commissioners still rejected Pasco’s request to buy back the property. The county stopped paying property taxes on it last year, claiming it was immune from ad valorem taxes.
“I want that resolved, yesterday,” Commissioner Susan Latvala told County Attorney Jim Bennett. “You need to sit down with whomever, Mike Fasano, in Pasco. What you say makes sense to me, and I assume you’re accurate. But they think they’re just as accurate. Maybe they don’t know what we know. I want that resolved.”
Then-Pasco Tax Collector Mike Olsen sold tax certificates for the 36 separate parcels for the unpaid 2012 taxes. Current Tax Collector Mike Fasano said he’s prepared to issue tax certificates for the 2013 taxes on May 13 unless Pinellas County pays up. With interest and penalties, the debt is now $113,728, and Fasano said it must be paid by certified bank check. If the 2012 tax certificates aren’t redeemed by next year, the property could be sold at auction.
“We got into this mess because we received info that we didn’t owe the taxes — we can pay something in lieu of taxes,” Commissioner Janet Long said.
Commissioners unanimously agreed they were better off redeeming the 2012 certificates now and trying to negotiate a solution with Pasco Property Appraiser Mike Wells.
“I think that was a wise decision,” Wells said. “But I am sorry to hear someone lost his job.”
Wells thinks any immunity for Pinellas County-owned property stops at the county line. He told the Tribune, “You have to understand what the law says. It says the federal, state and county government is immune from taxation. It’s my opinion that the immunity is only good within their jurisdiction.”
And Fasano pointed out that Pinellas paid taxes on its mineral rights while it claimed to be immune from taxation. “They also applied for and were granted exemptions for their agricultural uses,” he said. “If you’re immune from taxes, why would you even bother applying for exemptions?”
Pinellas commissioners also rejected a move by Commissioner Norm Roche to ask their legal department to draft an ordinance that would make it more difficult for future boards to sell the property. Commissioners Kenneth Welch, Charlie Justice and Latvala favor selling the property to Pasco, which has $45 million available for environmental land preservation in the next cycle of Penny for Pasco.
“You’ll never see me vote to sell this property; it’s too valuable,” Roche said.
Latvala said Pinellas taxpayers would vote “to sell it tomorrow” if given the chance.