Scientology, County Deadlock

Source: St. Petersburg Times
Date: January 20, 1993

During the past two years, Pinellas County's property appraiser has met intermittently with officials from the Church of Scientology, trying to reach an agreement on the church's multimillion-dollar tax bill.

On Tuesday, Jim Smith announced the result of the closed-door meetings: No deal.

Now, the matter will go back to court.

The Church of Scientology has its international spiritual headquarters in Clearwater, and owns more than $20-million worth of property in the area. Although members say Scientology is a bona-fide religion, critics say it is a cult, or merely a money-making outfit.

Every year since 1982, the Scientologists have filed for a property tax exemption (except in 1990, when church officials said they forgot). Every year, the property appraiser's office has rejected their application. The Scientologists have gone to court to overturn the rulings.

The private meetings, or mediation sessions, were authorized by the court system in an effort to give the two parties a chance to reach a compromise in their ongoing court battle. Any settlement reached during the sessions eventually would have been made public.

But that didn't happen. Smith said he made a settlement offer to the Scientologists, which church officials rejected. The church made a counter-offer, but Smith rejected it. He said the disagreement centered over whether the church is a non-profit organization.

Smith said that in his view, it's clear the organization is for-profit and should be taxed.

"It doesn't take much to figure that out, if you look at the price of their courses and the number of people they bring through here," he said.

Scientologists pay as much as $592 per hour for a counseling process called "auditing," and sign up for courses that cost as much as $10,000 each.

Paul Johnson, attorney for the church, referred questions to the mediator in the case, William H. Fleece, who could not be reached late Tuesday.

Assistant County Attorney Howard Bernstein said it's likely that the matter will be discussed in a conference before the judge in the case, and a trial date eventually will be set.

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