SPRING HILL — Pinellas County commissioners won’t sell the Crossbar and Al-Bar ranch wellfields to Pasco County, and for the second year in a row the county hasn’t paid taxes on the 12,400 acres.
Pasco Tax Collector Mike Fasano said Pinellas County was delinquent on its $53,000 tax bill as of April 1. If the bill isn’t paid by May 13, his office will issue tax certificates on the 36 separate parcels. Tax certificates for 2012, amounting to $59,000, were sold last year to multiple buyers, Fasano said.
Still in his first year as tax collector, Fasano is in the middle of a dispute between Pinellas County and longtime Pasco Property Appraiser Mike Wells. “Our job is simply to collect the tax,” Fasano said. “Pasco County has a tight budget, and $53,000 means a lot to our county.”
Pinellas County bought the ranch in central Pasco County nearly 40 years ago during Tampa Bay’s “water wars,” when area governments were scrambling to secure future water supplies for their residents.
“They have paid taxes on it for decades — since they bought it,” Wells said.
Assistant Pinellas County Attorney Joe Morrisey said the county is immune from property taxation, and only paid the taxes in previous years as part of some unwritten agreement between the two counties. To his knowledge, there was never a formal interlocal agreement or anything that put the terms in writing. He doesn’t know when Pasco County began assessing Pinellas.
“I haven’t done the research,” he said. “I just know the property ended up on the tax rolls.”
Morrisey said he isn’t aware of any case law dealing with taxation of county-owned property in another county, but theoretically, it would be the same exemption as state lands.
Wells disagrees, saying any immunity for Pinellas County-owned property stops at the county line.
“You have to understand what the law says. It says the federal, state and county government is immune from taxation,” he said. “It’s my opinion that the immunity is only good within their jurisdiction. We can’t go and buy a big piece of property in Pinellas County and say it’s immune from taxation.”
The most recent appraisal of the property places the value at around $57 million. Timber, cattle and pine straw operations, which help offset the cost of maintaining the property, turned a profit for the first time last year.
“The property is being used for agricultural purposes, and they’re receiving a tremendous tax break because it’s zoned for agriculture. They’ve saved millions of dollars over the years because of the agricultural exemption,” Wells said. “If they don’t want to pay taxes, they can sell it to the Pasco County commissioners.”
Pasco officials wanted to use funding from the next cycle of Penny for Pasco — it has $45 million earmarked for environmental land acquisition — to buy the property and open it to the public. Currently, the only Pasco residents who are permitted to enjoy the property are middle school students who attend field trips to the learning center there once a year. But the Pinellas board rejected the offer in February.
Pasco Commission Chairman Jack Mariano said he stands with Wells. “They should pay,” he said. “It’s not a hard one for me to figure out.”