Board Avoids Research Park Taxing Question

Article excerpt

The long-standing dispute about taxing properties at the Missouri Research Park took a new twist Tuesday.

The St. Charles County Board of Equalization voted 2-1 to take no position on assessments set by county Assessor Gene Zimmerman on eight businesses at the park.

Lawyers for seven of the businesses attended an inconclusive meeting last month with the Board of Equalization. The board scheduled a special meeting this week to hear the appeal of the eighth business, the Missouri Bluffs Golf Club.

In the two previous years, Zimmerman assessed the businesses on the basis of the value of their leasehold interests. He exempted, however, the value of improvements on the leased property that was devoted to research or otherwise contributed to the educational mission of the University of Missouri. The university owns the 742-acre park.

In the past, the businesses appealed to the Board of Equalization and won, thus escaping the payment of real-estate taxes. The businesses pay personal-property taxes on their high-tech equipment.

This year, Zimmerman again tried to put the businesses on the tax rolls and assessed them at a total of $6.6 million, including $1.4 million for the 235-acre golf course and club.

Again, the businesses appealed.

But the composition of the board had changed. The new chairman, appointed to the board at the beginning of this year, is Jeff Thornhill. He replaced John Nichols as chairman, although Nichols' term will not expire until the end of this year. Also new to the board is John Henning, appointed early in June.

When the research-park businesses appealed this year, the issue had become complicated by a new law passed by the Legislature to require new businesses at the park to pay taxes. The new law allowed exemptions to continue for businesses that had been at the park at the first of the year except for the golf course, which now would become liable for taxes.

This heightened the question of whether the law that created the tax-exempt status for businesses at the research park was constitutional. A new question was whether the newer state law discriminated against the golf course by exempting the other businesses.

When Thornhill sought legal advice on the role of the Board of Equalization in the dispute, County Counselor Joann Leykam responded that the dilemma for board members was "whether you can vote for the exemption based upon your reading of the statute and the (state) constitution; whether you must vote against, based on your understanding of those two sources; or whether you choose to stay the matter until the constitutional issues are resolved in the courts. …