Citrus stunt leaves a sour taste

A Times Editorial
Published December 8, 2007

For a candidate who pledges to restore trust in the Pinellas County property appraiser's office, Thomas Minkoff is off to an inauspicious start. His battle over exemptions for family-owned land in Hillsborough looks just like the gamesmanship that demeans the office he is seeking.

Plant some orange trees and then claim an agricultural exemption? That's one of the oldest games in the Florida tax book. As the Hillsborough property appraiser's legal counsel asked in a recent hearing: "What reason other than 'I don't want to pay taxes' is there to continue the agricultural activity on this property?"

To be fair, much of the 11 acres has had an agricultural exemption for years and is heavily planted with orange trees. But Minkoff, after becoming caretaker of the land, decided that wasn't good enough. He wanted the exemption for a parcel that serves essentially as a backyard for the lakeside dwelling. So he planted some extra trees there and tried to pass it off as a commercial orchard.

Minkoff, a development attorney, should know better. The lucrative exemption is intended only for active commercial agriculture. The law is explicit: " 'Bona fide agricultural purposes' means good faith commercial agricultural use of the land."

There was nothing "good faith" about the trick Minkoff tried to play, yet he is surprisingly unapologetic. Worse, he suggests Hillsborough property appraiser Rob Turner is somehow abusing his office by enforcing the law.

"I think it's our job," Minkoff told a reporter, "to help people when things are so out of whack."

If Minkoff means that a property appraiser is supposed to play along when property owners bend or break the rules, then his pledge to "restore integrity" is meaningless. Jim Smith, the Pinellas property appraiser who is leaving office in disgrace, already has shown what can go wrong when elected officials bend the rules. What Pinellas needs next is an honest broker, an appraiser who fairly and accurately carries out the law.

Otherwise, people lose trust.