A long-simmering dispute over whether Pinellas County is required by law to pay property taxes on 12,400 acres it owns in Pasco County could be headed for court.
On Tuesday, the Pinellas County Commission is expected to consider whether to seek a court injunction to bar the assessment and collection of taxes on the property, known collectively as the Cross Bar and Al Bar ranches. Pinellas would argue that “as a political subdivision of the State of Florida,” the county is immune from the assessment of ad valorem taxes against properties it owns, according to a memo from county attorney Jim Bennett to the commission.
Bennett is also asking for permission, if necessary, to file a lawsuit against Pasco Property Appraiser Mike Wells, Pasco Tax Collector Mike Fasano and the state’s Department of Revenue.
Pasco officials say governments are immune from paying taxes on properties within their own borders but not for property in another jurisdiction. “Pinellas County wants to own the property but remove one of the burdens of ownership by being immune to taxation,” said Wade Barber, Wells’ chief deputy. “We’re confident that we’re correct.”
Last April, the Pinellas commission voted unanimously to pay its outstanding property tax bill of $113,000, instructed its staff to meet with Pasco officials about future payments and directed attorneys to investigate the legality of withholding the payments.
Meanwhile, a debate among Pinellas commissioners about whether to keep or sell the properties will likely come in the next few months. Pinellas County Administrator Mark Woodard said Monday he is in talks with his Pasco counterpart, Michele Baker, about potential options to bring to their respective boards.
Pasco still wants to purchase the land to safeguard it against development and provide recreational access, Pasco Commission Chairman Ted Schrader said Monday.
Pinellas bought the land in the 1970s and 1980s amid heavy competition for water sources and installed 17 wellheads. Located north of State Road 52 and east of U.S. 41, the land includes timber and pine straw harvesting. But the wellheads and 17 acres that surround them are now owned by Tampa Bay Water and supply Pinellas, Pasco, Hillsborough, Tampa, St. Petersburg and New Port Richey with 14 million to 16 million gallons of water a day.
Some Pinellas commissioners have argued that the county should hold onto the land in case Tampa Bay Water dissolves. But last spring, a majority of Pinellas commissioners agreed to ask Pasco to seek independent appraisals so the board could have an informed debate about selling.
According to Woodard, the appraisals came in at $23 million to $24 million for Cross Bar, plus $3.5 million for the timber operation, and $20 million to $22 million for Al Bar and $2.1 million for the timber operation.