Taxation – as the principal source of government funding which pays for essential services like roads, utilities, and public protection – should be based on the concept of basic fairness – an equitable process of valuation and assessment which treats everyone equally – with impartiality and due process – each property owner paying their fair share, guided by rules which neither “soak the rich,” punish the poor, or allow unenforced “loopholes” to provide a lucrative advantage to some.
Determining what constitutes ones “fair share” is why we have lawyers and tax accountants who specialize in navigating the maze of ever-changing codes and policies to ensure their client is taking advantage of all legal deductions and exemptions – because even proponents of ‘Big Government’ rarely say they want to contribute more in local, state, and federal taxes than they are required.
Then there are the blatant abuses of the tax code that allow corporations and major commercial landowners to dodge their burden by parking large tracts under a questionable “agricultural exemption” until the market is conducive for developing the property.
A situation that happens far more than we might expect in Florida.
On Sunday, The Daytona Beach News-Journal’s business editor Clayton Park wrote perhaps the most important article you will read all year, an eye-opening exposé on the local application of Florida’s dubious “Greenbelt Law” – which was originally designed to protect farmers engaged in bona fide agricultural operations by taxing their land at a lower rate – an exemption now used as a flagrant tax dodge by some land holders who manipulate the system for personal and corporate advantage.
This isn’t new – it has gone on for years.
For instance, according to the News-Journal’s report, “In 2021, NASCAR will pay just $7,100 on the 211 acres of property where Amazon plans to build its fulfillment center, records show. That rate is 27 times lower than the property tax rate for a vacant lot in the Midtown neighborhood, The News-Journal found.
The reason for NASCAR’s low taxes: the land is currently zoned agricultural as a result of a “Greenbelt Exemption” Florida law that originally passed to help farmers in the late 1950s.”
By comparison, once the Amazon Fulfilment Center is constructed, property taxes will skyrocket to an estimated $1 million annually.
Apparently NASCAR uses the acreage – and others like it – for off-site parking during races and events at Daytona International Speedway – then transitions the land back to a “bone fide” hay operation operated under a subsidiary in order to claim the agricultural emption.
According to a quote in the News-Journal’s article attributed to local blowhard and direct marketing magnate “Mad Mike” Panaggio, a member of the mysterious CEO Business Alliance, skirting the letter of the exemption is just “good business”:
“I don’t know for sure, but let’s face it, it’s a prime piece of parking for when they have the Daytona 500,” said Panaggio. “(NASCAR has) been looking for ways to maximize their return. You can’t blame them for making a good business move (by taking advantage of the state’s greenbelt exemption). It’s just a loophole.”
Trust me. This “good business move” is not limited to NASCAR.
A few minutes of research on the Volusia County Property Appraisers website found numerous parcels in areas awaiting development currently enjoying the ag exemption – with one parcel off Boomtown Boulevard showing a land value of $503,000 (held by an “equity land trust” which protects the owner’s true identity) that will pay just $158.87 in ad valorem taxes based upon a “timberland” exemption.
You read that right.
Something I found most shocking in the News-Journal’s informative piece was the involvement of some very big local “movers & shakers”:
“In Volusia County, a number of other companies have also taken advantage of the greenbelt exemption, including CTO Realty Growth Inc., the Daytona Beach-based real estate investment trust formerly known as Consolidated-Tomoka Land Co.
After benefitting from the greenbelt exemption tax break for many years, CTO sold off more than 10,500 acres of former agricultural land in Daytona Beach over the past decade.
Today, those properties are home to several commercial developments, including Tanger Outlets and Tomoka Town Center shopping centers, the new super-sized Buc-ee’s gas station next to the Interstate 95/LPGA Boulevard interchange, as well as the rapidly growing Jimmy Buffett-themed Latitude Margaritaville 55-and-older community, and numerous luxury apartment complexes.”
I find that disturbing. You should, too.
Anyone remember seeing large scale commercial agriculture operations along Boomtown Boulevard before Tanger, Tomoka Town Center, or Buc-ees came to be?
I’m asking, because other than a few haybales rotting into the ground, I don’t remember commercial farming and ranching taking place on LPGA east of I-95 either. . .
So, what are those in a position of power doing to ensure that We, The Little People who shoulder the bulk of the tax-and-spend bureaucratic gluttony in Volusia County are protected from the abuse of “loopholes” and tax breaks that our small businesses will never know?
Not much. . .
When asked by the News-Journal why the property taxes for the future Amazon site are so low, Volusia County Property Appraiser Larry Bartlett, said:
“The system is the system,” he said of the greenbelt exemption that gives a tax break to owners of agricultural land.”
Like so much of the inequity inherent to Volusia County government and taxation, “it is what it is,” I guess. . .
According to Aubrey Jewett, a political science professor at the University of Central Florida and co-author of a book titled “Politics in Florida” (I’ll bet that’s a frightening tome, eh?) who was quoted by Mr. Park for his informative piece:
“The bad part about this for the average taxpayer is that it means there’s less money for much needed services such as roads, fire and police, and that the tax burden falls more on other commercial property owners as well as homeowners,” said Jewett. “After all, somebody has to pay for these services.”
In Volusia County, want to guess who that “somebody” is?
Each year come budget time, taxpayers watch helplessly as our elected and appointed officials on the dais of power wring their hands and conjure the apocalyptic consequences that will rain down on us like a horde of locusts if they fail to raise our property taxes to feed the voracious bureaucratic excess.
Then they cry the Poormouth Blues – wailing scary stories of how we are all doomed to snarl and gridlock unless we vote to increase the sales tax to pay for improved transportation infrastructure – as they incessantly approve more, more, more development – adding to the groaning burden while expecting you and I to bail out their asinine “cart before the horse” growth at all cost strategy.
At election time, we witness real estate development interests skew the political playing field with massive campaign contributions to hand-select candidates who rubberstamp rezoning requests and keep impact fees low while placing the burden squarely on voiceless residents – who are expected to pay the bills and keep our pie holes shut – as our elected officials increasingly shut us out with little substantive input or access.
In turn, we pay and struggle under the increasing burden while receiving little, if anything, in return – because, what else are we going to do – watch from the sidelines as our homes and property are ripped from our hands and sold to the highest bidder on the courthouse steps?
In my view, it is time for Property Appraiser Larry Bartlett and Tax Collector Will Roberts, as politically accountable constitutional officers, to commission an outside independent audit of previous and current agricultural exemptions in Volusia County with stiff tax levies and applicable penalties for any entity found guilty of submitting false applications, fraudulent claims, or fails to maintain a “good faith commercial agricultural use of the land.”
We should also demand that our legislators stop this pernicious practice of allowing developers to dodge millions in property taxes across the state by skirting the intent of the law using what has become known as the “Rent-a-Cow” scam.
Who knows, with everyone paying their legitimate fair share, we might be able to build roads and improve infrastructure for a hundred years here on the Fun Coast, right?
Don’t hold your breath.
According to Professor Jewett, speaking in the News-Journal, “It’s unlikely that we’re going to see any big changes because closing this loophole would affect some very powerful interest groups.”
Unfortunately, it appears no one who should has any interest in rocking the boat, closing lucrative loopholes, or disturbing ‘bidness as usual’ when the interests of our “Rich & Powerful” donor class are at stake.
And that, dear readers, is all ye know and all ye need to know about how things work here in the Sunshine State – the biggest whorehouse in the world. . .
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