Not all get the Smith treatment
A man says Pinellas took longer and paid less for his property.
By WILL VAN SANT, Times Staff Writer
Published August 10, 2007
Bernard La Fleur says he spent more than two decades pleading with Pinellas County to shore up the eroding banks of Curlew Creek, which steadily crept toward his Dunedin home.
When the county finally did act, its repair caused his house to sink toward the creek. La Fleur spent nearly two more years seeking a settlement. He walked away with a little more than the property's assessed value.
La Fleur can't help but wonder about Jim Smith, the Pinellas property appraiser who got a check for his property three months after complaining that the county had damaged it. Smith was paid nearly four times the taxable value his office had placed on the land.
"If I had money or been a big contractor or a politician, I would have made out like a bandit," said La Fleur, a 66-year-old retiree.
A grand jury is investigating the Smith transaction.
A St. Petersburg Times review of county records shows a sharp contrast between the way the government treated Smith and how it dealt with other residents with property-related claims. Most had their claims summarily denied and others, like La Fleur, waited far longer than three months for compensation.
Smith said Thursday that he was sorry about La Fleur's struggle and that nobody should suffer "anguish" when dealing with the county. But Smith said he didn't ask for any favors.
"If this was an exception to the rule, you need to be talking to the county, not me," said Smith, 67. "They opted to buy it."
The county did buy it in June, for $225,000; Smith's office had assessed the Brooker Creek property at $59,400 for tax purposes.
By contrast, the county gave La Fleur $172,000 for his property, plus $14,000 in relocation costs. That same year, 2005, Smith's office assessed La Fleur's property at $150,200.
It's extremely rare for the county to buy property to settle a damage complaint. Other than the Smith purchase, county officials believe, La Fleur's was the most recent case.
Most such claims are settled with a payment through Pinellas' risk management office, not a land purchase.
Over the last three years, the county says it has received 282 damage claims, for things such as flooding and sewer backups. In nearly two-thirds of those cases the county decided it was not at fault and paid nothing.
In the remainder, payments ranged from as low as $12 to as high as $79,190. The total paid for the 282 claims was $602,190.
The alleged damage to Smith's land stems from flood control work county crews did after the 2004 hurricanes. Smith complained to the county in September 2005, but let the matter drop. Then, in March, he launched a campaign that involved calls to County Attorney Susan Churuti, County Administrator Steve Spratt and County Commission Chairman Ronnie Duncan.
During the previous nine months, Smith had attempted to sell the property privately but had gotten no offers. He had pitched the 1.5-acre lot as a "Beautiful Custom Home Site."
Churuti served as Smith's legal advocate in his personal claim. Spratt directed his staff to move at top speed in the matter, and Duncan made inquiries into the deal's progress.
That's quite a contrast to how La Fleur says he was treated.
"They weren't helpful, they weren't responsive," he said. "They didn't have the time."
Instead of referring Smith's claim to risk management, the county attorney's office treated it as a case of inverse condemnation. In such cases, property owners allege that either through overregulation or actual physical damage, a government has robbed them of property rights.
Sometimes, a government will settle such cases without going to court. In other cases, a judge will be asked to decide whether there has been a violation of property rights. The county attorney's office chose to settle.
Why remains unclear.
Generating a rationale
County officials said lawyers in the county attorney's office would answer questions. But nobody in that office returned calls from the Times on Thursday.
The trail of e-mails and memos associated with the deal make clear that staffers treated the Smith purchase as a "rush" matter requiring "priority handling." They also moved quickly to generate a rationale for the purchase other than liability for damage.
And officials would end up paying Smith more than what documents indicate he was willing to take.
Spratt "relayed info that Smith has offered the parcel to the county for $200K," Assistant County Administrator Pete Yauch wrote public works director Jan Herbst on March 23. "Any benefits to purchasing for stormwater?"
County officials would come to see the property as a tool to fight flooding in the Tarpon Woods area. But before the County Commission voted unanimously June 5 to approve the purchase, county staffers warned that its true benefit was undetermined.
On May 19, Jorge Quintas, engineering director in public works, cautioned against referring to the lot's potential as part of a "drainage project." A study was under way to come up with a drainage strategy for the area, he said, advising "limiting any justification to strictly maintenance and realignment benefits."
County officials have denied that they gave preferential treatment to the property appraiser.
But La Fleur is struggling to understand how exactly a person can be paid nearly a quarter million dollars for damage to a lot with nothing on it.
"And they wouldn't give me the time of day for a three-bedroom, two-bath house," La Fleur said. "It was like I'm a peon, I don't count, I only pay taxes."
Times staff researcher Angie Drobnic Holan contributed to this report. Will Van Sant can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4166.