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County officials opt to fight tax appeal

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Company rep says apartments qualify for exemption

By Kevin Koelling, Managing Editor

TELL CITY - Perry County commissioners agreed with County Assessor Mendy Ward in a June 1 regular meeting that the Continental Apartments should not receive a property-tax exemption, and to employ a Carmel attorney to represent them if the issue goes to court.

The exemption request was made by parent company Grandview Care Inc., Ward told the commissioners, which owns several properties. The current request was for the apartments at the corner of 20th and Tell  streets in Tell City.

“We've denied this the last three years,” Ward said. The first of those years, when it went to state hearing,  the ruling favored Perry County, the assessor explained.

The company enlisted the aid of the Ice Miller law firm in Indianapolis, and “last year, their total amount of taxes they paid was $2,275.48. We wrote off $11,275.96.”

“Grandview Care Inc. has this little tweak in there that they rent to low-income, elderly and handicapped people,” she explained in response to a question from Commissioner Gary Dauby about why the company is entitled to exemption. The company's last exemption was 80 percent of its taxes. It's seeking a 90-percent exemption this year, “and again the (property-tax appeal) board has turned them down,” Ward said.

Carmel attorney Marilyn Meighn's sole duty is representing counties in appeal cases, Ward said. “She just won a very large appeal in Bartholomew County, to the tune of about $600,000.”

The attorney charges $175 an hour, and under the worst-case scenario, the county would pay her $4,000 to $6,000, she continued. The appeal was filed April 28, and the hearing probably won't occur until some time next year. Ward wanted approval to hire the lawyer and a determination on how to pay her.

“Are they going to do this every year?” Dauby asked.

“If we would win,” Ward answered, “I would say no. The reason I'm telling you that is because whenever the board turned them down, (a Grandview Care representative) called and said, 'I guess you have Marilyn Meighn representing the county now,' because they've gone up against her head to head, and she's won 70 percent of the time.”

The company has also filed an exemption request for a rental complex being built behind Perry County Memorial Hospital, Ward added. “We declined that one, also, but there wasn't a structure there; all they filed on was the land.”

Ward said Friday the requests are confidential, but that the company claimed in seeking exemptions it serves a charitable purpose.

“But they have no type of screening process to validate the tenant roll,” she said. Rents should be lower if the company serves disadvantaged clients, she added, but they're at market value.

In the case represented by Ice Miller, Ward said in response to a question from Commissioner Jody Fortwendel, “I represented the county.” That company's attorney “was like a little bulldog,” she said later in the meeting. “It wasn't too intimidating, but it's a whole different ballgame than what I experienced the first time. I'm way out of my league.”

County attorney Chris Goffinet explained he can't represent the county in cases involving the company because he represented it in a zoning issue.

“I don't even know who they are, and I don't like them,” Dauby said.

According to its Web site, the company was formed in 2000 by Guy Neil and Laverne Ramsey and is a charitable organization recognized by the Internal Revenue Service. Company representative Sam Beck noted Friday that when argued before an administrative-law judge with the Indiana Board of Tax Review, “we won” before the higher-level authority.

Information on household size and income is collected from applicants, he explained, and applied to guidelines provided by the federal Housing and Urban Development.

“We also follow HUD fair-market rent guidelines for this area,” he added. Several of the company's properties qualify under other federal public-housing programs to which “we're held to strict guidelines,” Beck said. The Continental Apartments don't qualify under that “Section 8” program, he said, but the company adheres to the guidelines voluntarily.

Ninety percent of the complex's residents must fit criteria for disadvantaged residents for it to qualify for tax exemption, and “there is a substantial percentage of our residents that meet the criteria,” he said, adding the number is significantly higher than 90 percent.  

The majority of any charges would come next year, Ward told the commissioners, so she could plan for it in that budget.

“I'm all for Mendy bringing this to the county council,” to be included in that planning, Fortwendel said.

Ward explained that she requested rental records from the company, and found all of the tenants are categorized as being elderly, low-income or handicapped.

“We're going to gamble six grand to get 11?” Fortwendel asked.

“To make back 11, per year,” Ward replied. If the county prevails, she added, “they'll be billed for the full amount ... they'll be billed at 100 percent, not the 80 percent that they got last year.”

“It's a 50-50 shot,” Ward said.

“I say we go head-to-head with them,” Dauby offered.

“Me, too,” agreed Commissioner Bill Amos.

“To paraphrase Joe Biden,” Dauby added as a motion to hire the lawyer was approved, “we have a patriotic duty to pay our taxes.”

Grandview Care, based in Louisville, Ky., has several properties in Perry County and was denied an exemption on property at Tell Street and Dauby Lane, but didn't appeal it.

Ward said she doesn't want to set “a bad precedent for other people that have rentals, because by giving them an exemption, it gives them an unfair advantage” over other apartment owners.

The commissioners will next meet at 8 a.m. Wednesday.