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Pinellas Co. files another legal brief in Florida Supreme Court battle to avoid paying taxes on Pasco land

The decision could have statewide implications.

Attorneys for Pinellas County are taking a long-standing property tax dispute with Pasco County to the Florida Supreme Court.

In a brief filed Friday, the county contends it is immune from taxation on property it owns in Pasco County because the county is a political subdivision of the state.

At issue are two properties consisting of 12,400 acres — the Cross Bar Ranch and A1 Bar Ranch. The county had been paying property taxes on the land but stopped after a 2014 audit by a Certified Public Accountant with the Division of Inspector General for the Pinellas County Clerk of Court found that some or all of the Pasco County property might be exempt from taxation because it provided a public use. The county later amended that to show they should be immune from taxation on the property.

Both being exempt and being immune would protect Pinellas County from taxation, but under exemption the county would have to file for the tax relief by showing the land was held for public use. Under immunity, the county simply would not be required to pay property taxes on the property at all.

The county stopped paying taxes on the property and sued Pasco County for reimbursement of tax payments made for 2014 through 2016.

A trial court sided with Pinellas County, but an appeals court later overturned that decision and the matter will now go before the Florida Supreme Court.

The brief in large part follows reasoning in another filing in late September requesting an “alternative motion for rehearing.” The court denied that request, but granted Pinellas County’s request for clarification and certification.

The court calls the matter an “issue of first impression” that asks “whether a county’s immunity from taxation extends extraterritorially to property that it owns in another county.”

“The Pasco Property Appraiser contends that in the case of overlapping sovereignty, the sovereign acting outside of its territory must be treated as a private entity,” the September filing reads.

Pasco County cites another case, Georgia v. City of Chattanooga, which found Georgia was not immune from condemnation of land it owned in Tennessee because land held by another state would be subject to the laws of the state in which the land was located.

The Pasco County Property Appraiser posed a question. What if Pasco County were to purchase the Don Cesar hotel in St. Pete Beach? Under Pinellas County’s reasoning, Pasco County could then operate a lucrative for-profit business without paying property taxes because it owned the land in which the hotel operated.

“Not only would this deprive Pinellas County of substantial revenues, the Pasco Property Appraiser claims, but it would also elevate one county above another despite the fact that each county’s sovereignty is coequal,” the brief reads.

Pinellas County rejects that argument, saying instead that counties are immune from such taxation because they are a political subdivision of the state.

“Because each county’s sovereign immunity emanates not from the county itself but rather from the state, [Pinellas County] argues that property owned by a county anywhere in the state is immune from ad valorem taxation,” the filing reads.

The decision, once levied, could have statewide implications for other county governments that own property outside of their own geographic boundaries.

Janelle Irwin Taylor has been a professional journalist covering local news and politics in Tampa Bay since 2003. Most recently, Janelle reported for the Tampa Bay Business Journal. She formerly served as senior reporter for WMNF News. Janelle has a lust for politics and policy. When she’s not bringing you the day’s news, you might find Janelle enjoying nature with her husband, children and two dogs. You can reach Janelle at Janelle@floridapolitics.com.

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