Penny tax paid for Smith lot

Commissioners say the property appraiser's land qualifies for use in flood control.

By WILL VAN SANT and JACOB H. FRIES, Times Staff Writers
Published August 2, 2007

Local leaders told voters this spring that the Penny for Pinellas sales tax pays for essential projects -- such as roads, bridges and parks.

As it turns out, the county used Penny money to pay for a vacant lot owned by Pinellas Property Appraiser Jim Smith, a controversial purchase that has prompted a grand jury probe that begins today.

Voters agreed in March to extend the 1-cent sales tax until 2020, after an aggressive campaign by the county.

By law, Penny money can be used for stormwater management. Pinellas officials have defended buying the Smith property because it sits on Brooker Creek and could help them ease flooding in the Tarpon Woods area.

That's what County Commissioner Karen Seel said County Administrator Steve Spratt told her shortly before she and her colleagues voted unanimously to approve the purchase June 5.

"The property was needed for flooding," Seel said. "That's why I didn't question it. I knew we had to do everything possible to stop the flooding."

Spratt said Wednesday it was important to separate Smith's ownership of the land from the value that Spratt's public works professionals see in the county's ownership.

"This property is uniquely situated and helpful to them," Spratt said.

For those who opposed extending the Penny, however, using sales tax money to make the controversial purchase is evidence of government irresponsibility.

"It demonstrates that the politicians can't be trusted," said David McKalip, a Penny critic and St. Petersburg neurosurgeon. "They'll say it's for infrastructure, but they play fast and loose with the terms. They justify all their spending with the situation of the day."

Key players in the Smith land deal are expected to begin testifying today in a grand jury room on the fourth floor of the Criminal Court Complex in Clearwater.

Aided by State Attorney Bernie McCabe, the grand jury's job is to determine whether any wrongdoing took place, and, if so, how severe the offenses were.

Jurors will be asked to untangle events surrounding the sale, in which taxpayers bought Smith's land for nearly four times the value Smith's office assigned the lot for tax purposes.

The transaction was rushed to completion after Smith's lobbying of top officials and in response to his claim that county crews had "devastated" his lot doing flood work. At the time, Smith was seeking money to buy a home in the Countryside area of Clearwater.

County officials hope the grand jury will remove the cloud over Pinellas government.

"I want all of the relevant facts to be presented to the grand jury," County Commissioner Ken Welch said. "And I want them to be able to put together a complete picture of what transpired in this transaction."

Welch and other commissioners have said they had incomplete information at the time they approved the deal.

Grand juries in Florida have broad powers. They can examine criminal activity as well as noncriminal ethical and legal violations, including whether public officials have been "incompetent or lax in the performance of their duties."

Those now slated to appear include the seven members of the County Commission, County Attorney Susan Churuti, Spratt, Smith and at least 15 Pinellas employees.

It's likely the grand jury will ask to hear from additional players in the near future, said Chief Assistant State Attorney Bruce Bartlett.

"This is a get-you-started list," Bartlett said. "The grand jury will be hearing from or requesting to hear from all of the major players in this transaction."

For every grand jury term, 21 citizens are called to participate. Seventeen so far have made themselves available for the Smith case. The minimum number needed is 15.

Their work begins at 9 a.m. Testimony will continue Friday and perhaps resume early next week. The grand jury decides when it can gather based on the availability of its members.

Proceedings are closed to the public.

Will Van Sant can be reached at vansant@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4166.