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Protest over tax bill sways appraiser

The Ruskin Drive-In won't have such a steep increase after all.

Published November 18, 2005

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RUSKIN - Ted Freiwald sighed in relief.

"I sure do like being a pauper again," he said Friday.

Last week, Freiwald was facing an $18,000 property tax bill for his business, the Ruskin Drive-In Theatre.

His property value had more than quadrupled in one year. Freiwald figured he'd have to sell 4,600 tickets just to break even.

But after loyal customers bombarded the property appraiser's office with emails - and after the St. Petersburg Times interviewed property appraiser Rob Turner - Freiwald learned this week that his property had been re-appraised.

The result:

His tax bill dropped from about $18,500 to around $8,500.

"When somebody drops close to $10,000 off your taxes, it does make you feel a little better," he said.

Still, he said, he has yet to tell his customers the good news.

"Not til I see it on paper," he said.

The Ruskin Drive-In Theater had been showing films since 1952, with Freiwald operating it for the last 28 years. He and his wife, Karen, run the projection booth and cook up the burgers their regular customers swear by.

When the first tax bill came this month, the Freiwalds e-mailed a plea to hundreds of their customers: HELP SAVE YOUR DRIVE IN THEATRE.

They asked patrons to write to the property appraiser and to county commissioners in support of the drive-in.

The public responded.

"It is the small, locally owned businesses like this that make Ruskin Ruskin," wrote Marcia and Rusty Pontenberg.

At the same time, Freiwald filed an appeal of his assessment with Turner's office. In a single year, the assessed value of their 5.3 acres had jumped from $174,217 to $814,425.

That meant last year's tax bill of about $4,000 would more than quadruple.

Interviewed last week, Turner said his office had raised Freiwald's property value because of a development boom in Ruskin. His office could not consider emails of support or Freiwald's ability to pay in considering the appeal, Turner said.

Then early this week, Freiwald said he received a visit from appraisers. A few days later, he got a call saying his assessment had been lowered.

Warren Weathers, the chief deputy property appraiser, said Friday that the appraiser's office conducts an automatic "administrative review" for anyone who disagrees with their appraisal.

In this case, he said, appraisers found that while nearby properties were indeed selling for high prices, most of the properties were much smaller than Freiwald's.

Essentially, he said, Freiwald qualified for a "bulk discount" on the price of his land.

Freiwald was relieved, he said. He'll still have to dig into his savings to pay the bill, but he doesn't mind.

"I've given (the theater) money before," he said. "It owes me a lot of money right now."

S.I. Rosenbaum can be reached at 813 661-2442 or [Last modified November 18, 2005, 18:43:02]

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