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Four juice importers sue to halt tax

The companies say their $4.5-million annual payout helps little in the area of marketing. State officials disagree.

By KYLE PARKS

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 14, 2001


TAMPA -- Four of west-central Florida's orange juice importers are starting their own little revolution.

Saying there's no reason they should pay a state tax on their products, the companies are suing the Florida Department of Citrus and the state.

"It's taxation without representation," said Philip Tope, executive vice president of Tampa Juice Service Inc., which imports juice from Costa Rica.

At issue is the "equalization tax" charged on juice that comes into Florida from other countries to be used for processing.

The tax money, which totals about $4.5-million a year, goes to the Florida Department of Citrus for marketing and research. The tax was created about 30 years ago after Florida growers complained importers weren't helping to pay for the marketing.

But the importers say the department doesn't do much to help them.

The fight illustrates how Florida's citrus industry, once dominated by a few homegrown companies, has become a fragmented group that doesn't always agree on issues.

A number of Brazilian companies have moved into Florida to grow and process citrus. And more importers, such as the four suing the state, are bringing in juice from Latin America to mix with Florida's juice.

"The Florida citrus industry isn't just the old boys' club anymore," said Kristen Gunter, a Lakeland lawyer who represents the plaintiffs. "That's what kept this tax from being challenged for years. But that is changing."

The tax is 2.75 cents per gallon of juice, which is selling for about 78 cents a gallon in the futures markets. That makes the tax about 3.6 percent.

The four importers -- Tampa Juice Service, Cargill Citro-America Inc. of Frostproof, Vitality Beverages Inc. of Tampa and Louis Dreyfus Citrus Inc. of Winter Garden -- say they get little in return.

"The state is marketing 100 percent Florida juice," Gunter said. "What does that do to help the importers?"

A hearing on the case is set for April 11 at the Circuit Court of the 10th Judicial Circuit in Bartow. This week, the judge consolidated the four cases for pretrial motions.

The plaintiffs argue that the tax is unconstitutional because it is charged only on foreign juice, not on juice brought in from other states. Also, they say, the Department of Citrus spends most of its time and money pitching all-Florida juice.

State citrus officials disagree.

"So much of what is done in research and marketing is done for orange juice in general, not just 100 percent Florida juice," said Andy LaVigne, executive vice president of Florida Citrus Mutual, the state's largest citrus growers group.

Juice that includes non-Florida products is marketed with a seal that says "100 percent pure. Florida's seal of approval."

But in recent years, citrus department officials have said they were doing more to market pure Florida juice. Carton seals for that juice show the outline of Florida and a citrus tree, along with the slogan "100 percent pure Florida."

The $4.5-million from the equalization tax is a relatively small part of the citrus department's $79-million budget, but it would be missed.

"Based on what they are paying, we think the importers are getting a good value for their money," said Mia McKown, general counsel for the department.

Tampa Juice Service's Tope doesn't think so. The company, a subsidiary of Costa Rican citrus company Ticofrut S.A., pays as much as $40,000 a month in equalization taxes.

The plaintiffs aren't only asking that the tax be abolished; they want a refund on the payments they've made for the past three years.

In Tampa Juice Service's case, that would be about $1.2-million.

- Kyle Parks can be reached at parks@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3405.

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