Standing Up To Government Abuse

I am asking for help to fight the abuse of our local government.

As a senior citizen, I am standing up to our county government that is spending beyond our means.

The county has come up with a creative way to tax us, called an MSBU (more about that below in the details).

The county wants our community to help pay for the county to purchase a defunct, contaminated, golf course at more than double the appraised value, AND to pay for the maintenance forever.

It is arguable that the cost to clean up the existing contamination could make the property worth nothing, yet the County still wants to purchase it at a premium price and make us pay for it. The price is high enough to repay all the existing liens filed against the property.  These liens are held by developers and their lawyers.  In other words, the county is taxing us to pay for the purchase that will end up paying off these bad investments made by these lienholders.

And even though we are paying, the county will still own it and will make all the decisions.

 

THE DETAILS

Florida Legislature created Municipal Service Benefits Units ,MSBUs,  during the bad economic times to help Counties to pay for essential services. The MSBU would allow the Counties to provide the service and tax the particular community that stands to particularly benefit from the projects.  Property Taxes in Florida have 2 categories.  The first is the property tax, which is called the ad-valorum tax.  It is your basic property tax which is subject to homestead and is protected by limited amount of annual increases.  The second part is called non ad-valorum.  This section contains such things as charges for fire stations, drainage, street lighting, etc., and has no such statutory protection. These charges can be raised by any amount by the county.  For example, in Pasco County the non-ad-valorum storm water assessment was recently raised by 67%.  The MSBU  is a non-ad-valorum tax.

The MSBU will be spread equally among the homeowners, regardless of the value of their property, so a home worth $50,000 would be charged the same assessment as a home worth $500,000.  Gulf Harbors does contain some higher priced homes, but it also contains many more modestly priced homes.  Many of these more modest homes are owned by senior citizens that have lived there for a good part of their lives, and many of whom are on fixed incomes.  With costs rising for everything, some of these seniors are barely getting by as it is.  This additional tax to fund the county’s purchase of a golf course could be the final straw for some of these seniors and force them out of their homes.

The county thinks this is a good idea and passed the MSBU to impose this tax in September 2016.  A neighbor and I filed a lawsuit to challenge the MSBU.  At first we filed it pro se, without an attorney.  It later became necessary for this person to move from the community, and had to remove herself from the lawsuit, so I now stand alone in the legal proceeding.  As the county bombarded me with so much legal work, it soon became necessary to hire an attorney to deal with everything the county was throwing at me!  So far, the county has lost a Motion to Dismiss the lawsuit, and also a Motion for Summary Judgment to try to end the suit.  This case is now set to go to trial.  I have been paying for the majority of the lawsuit myself, with some help from our neighbors.  The purpose of this GoFundMe campaign is to help with those legal expenses.  The county has mounted a vigorous defense of the suit, and has caused the legal bills to fight it to climb dramatically.  This is an effective tactic, to engage in extensive legal proceedings to run up the costs of anyone who opposes them.  The county has access to taxpayer money to fight, but an individual that chooses to stand up to challenge them must do so at their own expense.  This has caused many questionable actions by the county to go unchallenged, and they know it.  But not this time.

So why am I fighting this?

First, there is the issue that there are many seniors in the community that cannot afford another new tax.  Then there is the issue of how the county presented this deal to the community.  A massive campaign was launched that if we did not purchase this land immediately, a developer was waiting to buy it and would build many units on the land, maybe even multi-family.  This created a panic in our community. Our subdivision has only 1 road to enter and leave our community, and this scared our seniors on the traffic problem alone.  (This was a scare tactic that the county also used in other areas).  In addition, The county did not divulge all the relevant information regarding the condition of the golf course.   During the course of the lawsuit much information was discovered that the county had failed to disclose.

The county has done this before.  The county had previously purchased 2 other golf courses, without conducting any environmental testing prior to the purchase.  In the first golf course, the owner forbade the county from doing environmental testing prior the purchase and yet the county paid $2.4M for it.  A group of senior citizens hired an attorney to fight the imposed MSBU and ran out of money.  The second golf course bought just 1 month before ours was scheduled to be closed on, has yet to be tested.   In both cases, the county also used the scare tactic that many units could be built if the purchase was not agreed to.

At my insistance, I finally received the Environmental testing results.  Only then did we find out that this land is contaminated.  So, all the county’s enticements to get a favorable outcome of the vote, such as creating walking or biking paths and a dog park, would be impossible unless we cleaned the dirt.  The estimated costs to purchase the Gulf Harbors golf course did not include any allowance for cleanup of any contaminants, and the amount of the tax the homeowners were told they would be paying was based strictly on the purchase price.  However, the ordinance that created the MSBU stated that all costs involved with the golf course purchase, and all maintenance and costs of improvements were to be added to the taxed amount.  So any cleanup costs would be added to the tax, but the possibility of having to deal with such contaminants was never disclosed.  It is now known that the golf course is in fact contaminated; a fact which only came to light after the lawsuit was filed to stop the purchase.

When the vote of the residents was taken to approve the purchase and the MSBU, the ballot and other communications from the county stated very clearly that the purchase would not go forward unless at least 50% of the returned ballots voted in favor.  After the vote, the county claimed that it had passed.  However, I went with several other residents to do our own audit of the ballot results, and finding irregularities in many of the returned ballots, we concluded that the vote actually did not pass.  When confronted with this discrepancy, the county took the position that the vote was not binding, and could be overruled by the county commissioners regardless of the outcome, regardless of the wishes of the community!

This lawsuit is set to go to trial in October.  If successful, it will set a precedent that county government cannot ignore the wishes of its citizens, or impose taxes without the proper, informed, consent of the governed.

A non-profit organization called Gulf Harbors United was formed to support the lawsuit shortly after I had to hire an attorney.  They have held fundraisers and accepted donations, but so far that has only covered about one third of the legal expenses, and there are more legal bills to come as the lawsuit progresses to trial.  So I have started this GoFundMe campaign to help keep this lawsuit alive and moving forward.  The Gulf Harbors United website, gulfharborsunited.org , has a lot more information posted there about the golf course lawsuit, and the county’s actions.  You can also view several videos taken at public rallies held to inform the community about the county’s actions and how those actions would affect them.

Thank you for reading about my fight, and the stand I have taken to hold our county government accountable to the citizens they represent.

Organizer

Diane Kobernick 
Organizer
New Port Richey, FL

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