Tax appeals plod along

Vicky Newman-News-Herald

Six weeks after tax appraisal cases were to be heard by Judge Mark Minsky, the city of Loudon and Loudon County still await resolution on appeals by Tate & Lyle and Kimberly-Clark.

Loudon's largest industries appealed their appraised values to the Loudon County Equalization Board in 2011, claiming the properties were overvalued by millions. When that board did not rule to the satisfaction of company officials, they appealed to the courts.

Tate & Lyle had been scheduled for a hearing Aug. 12 and Kimberly-Clark for Aug. 13, but the Tate & Lyle hearing took all the time allotted over the two days. A settlement between the Loudon County Property Assessor's office and Tate & Lyle is still ongoing.

Meanwhile, the hearing for Kimberly-Clark has been rescheduled for Oct. 1 in Nashville.

Loudon County Property Appraiser Mike Campbell's desk is stacked with volumes of files pertaining to the two appeals. Since coming to the office two years ago, Campbell said he has personally spent untold hours researching the properties. He and two staff members underwent safety training courses to be able to work on the Tate & Lyle property, then spent months reviewing each building and updating the property description.

Tate & Lyle was appraised at more than $60 million in 2011, and more than $65 million in 2012. In both years, the industry's appealed value was less than $10 million.

"That obviously raised a red flag," Campbell said. "I wanted to find out why there was such a huge discrepancy between the two. With those numbers, you are not looking at rounding something off. That's a huge difference."

To find the problem, he said it was necessary to follow the trail of construction of dozens of buildings from the 1980s to the present some 49 property record cards.

"We physically verified the square footage of all the buildings," Campbell said. "We checked to make sure we were not overvaluing real property and not miscalculating the area."

The work did not uncover major errors or problems, Campbell said. However, a new Computer Assisted Mass Appraisal system purchased in 2012 helped county appraisers calculate more efficiently the square footage of buildings with multiple stories of varied wall heights and materials, all of which impact value, Campbell said.

The two parties had edged closer in appraisal numbers, and Campbell said Minsky asked them to stipulate items on which they were close.

"The administrative judge allowed a multiweek period to communicate and stipulate to certain points, and we are still trading information," Campbell said. "The judge has some leeway to see if the parties could resolve differences. The judge issued a case management order for both parties to get together for discovery."

One problem, Campbell said, is that Tate & Lyle, formerly called Staley, is not a simple property and the industry hired a new appraiser late in the appeals process. The new appraiser brought in a lot of new information that took a great deal of time to digest.

"When you're looking at $40 to $60 million in property, it is very in-depth," Campbell said. "You are talking about a two-volume series of property descriptions that would take weeks to review," Campbell said. "These are highly complex, highly specialized and highly engineered facilities not your typical warehouse-type plant facilities. They are built for specific use."

Specialized properties cannot easily be compared to similar businesses, Campbell said.

That statement was echoed to Doyle Arp, who was property assessor at the time Staley located the facility here. Arp attended the hearing in August in case his input was needed.

"I think the county value was fair and I thought (Tate & Lyle) came up with a value on the buildings that was ridiculous," Arp said. "The guy got paid to bring the number to the table, and he thinks he justified it. The base rates change over the years, but when we put it on the books, they gave us the complete set of blueprints and we set down a base rate to fit the cost of the building.

"Everybody was happy with it until three years ago," Arp said. "The plant produces more now than it did in 1980. It is very unique; built to make what it makes. If it was on the market, it might not bring as much, but is not for sale. It shouldn't have gotten to this point."

The judge listened carefully to both sides, Campbell said. He would not speculate on which way Minsky might rule.

"There are 30-plus buildings, a mixture of buildings on 184 acres," Campbell said. "It was designed, built and has operated from the early '80s and was one of the larger single entities and ongoing projects in the state when they chose to build in Loudon County. It is very complex we're talking the magnitude of structures, the quality, the fact that it is heavily engineered, its specialized use all this makes it difficult to predict the outcome."

As long as the plant is operating, it has value to the operator, Arp said.

"They are not going out of business; they are still making products," Arp said. "If they put the property on the market now, they may not get 10 cents on the dollar, but they couldn't build it anywhere else for that."

The cases, originally expected to be resolved by mid-October or earlier, could be pushed to the first of the year, Campbell said. The Tate & Lyle case was given a deadline of Sept. 27 to work out stipulated items. The city of Loudon and Loudon County have struggled to make workable budgets since the two industries began the appeals. Officials are waiting to hear the outcome.

"If we can get it worked out and get a decision, the city can move forward with planning," Campbell said. He offered to travel to Nashville for the hearing because it could not be scheduled in this district until January or February.