Representatives from the Hancock County Alliance for Good Government on Tuesday approached the Hancock County Board of Supervisors about the Bay-Waveland Yacht Club's exemption from the tax rolls.
Alliance chairman Lana Noonan read aloud a resolution that the organization wanted the board to pass.
"A monthly report shall be presented to the Hancock County Board of Supervisors by Hancock County Tax Collector Jimmie Ladner listing all requests made to his office for tax deductions, abatements, and total exemptions being removed from the tax rolls," Noonan said. "In order for the board of supervisors to execute their statutory requirement to participate in the deliberation and to determine their eligibility of such abatements, reductions and exemptions, as provided in MS. Code 27-35-113, referenced to me by Jeff Foreman from the Mississippi Department of Revenue on Aug. 20, 2018. This monthly report shall be made an official exhibit of the official minutes of the Hancock County Board of Supervisors."
Board president Blaine LaFontaine said the board's role, according to statutes 27-31-1 and 27-35-113, in the process is as an appeal board.
Board attorney Gary Yarborough said the tax assessor determines the eligibility for an exemption.
LaFontaine said that he is not sure that the board can require Ladner to submit a monthly or yearly report.
"Statutorily, whether we're talking about sheriff's department, tax assessor, circuit clerk or chancery, they do have a lot of capabilities to do things within their own statutory abilities," LaFontaine said.
Ladner said that anyone can request public records from his office.
"In Hancock County, we have a total of 4,398 parcels that carry exempt status," Ladner said. "3,574 of those are some form of government land, either the federal government, all the way down to utility districts. That leaves 824 other ones. Of those 800, the vast majority of those are either public utilities or POAs."
Ladner read a letter he received from the Department of Revenue's Tony Lawler into the record.
"Our position is that once the property, real or personal, has been determined eligible for the exemption by the local county tax assessor, the exemption shall be applied as outlined in statute," Ladner said. "If the taxpayer feels aggrieved by the determination, MS Code Sec. 27-35-89 clearly outlines the process by which a taxpayer appeals to the board of supervisors. In these instances, the board acts in a judicial capacity appearing the first level appeal against decisions of the tax assessor."
Ladner said he follows the statutes.
He also spoke to the board about the alliance's request.
"I have protected fiercely the authority of the assessor's office," Ladner said. "I believe I owe it to the next person that sits in my chair. I don't have a problem in the world cooperating with this board if y'all would like an informal list presented. But I'm not going to do it in the form of an order, because where would that stop? If I allow the authority of the assessor's office to be removed."
With regards to transparency, Ladner said he was one of the "first assessors in the state of Mississippi to put my entire land roll out for every person to look at every parcel."
Noonan said in October 2015, the BWYC changed its status to a "fraternal and benevolent organization for recreational and entertainment."
She added that the shareholders "were not informed."
Noonan said the BWYC's bylaws dictate that changes to the bylaws are to be advertised one month before the vote. That didn't happen, she said.
"They changed from a recreational and entertainment classification with a letter to the Secretary of State that they become fraternal and benevolent," Noonan said. "And fraternal and benevolent properties are exempt from ad valorem. It says here in 27-31-1, all property real or personal owned and occupied by a fraternal and benevolent organization when used by such organization and from which no rentals or other profits accrue to the organization, but any part rented or from which revenue is received shall be taxed."
Noonan - who said she is also a 40-year member of the BWYC - said the BWYC has a restaurant and advertises for the rental of its facility.
Noonan told the board she believes the Hancock County Tax Assessor's Office is in violation of MS Code 27-31-1.
Ladner said it's not a "discretionary determination."
"If the entity meets the requirement for the exemption, the statute says they shall be exempt," Ladner said. "What I make is the determination on whether they do or don't meet the qualifications. Under her definition, any property that is exempt under section 'd' that rents their hall out is a taxable property. Think about what that would mean. I can tell you that her interpretation is not the interpretation of any assessor that I've talked to that had a similar problem."
Ladner referenced Section 112 of the Constitution, which requires him to treat properties equally.
Ladner said he is not treating this property any differently than any other that qualifies for an exemption.
"My job is not to decide whether or not they meet my personal definition of fraternal and benevolent, my job is to decide whether they meet the accepted legal definition of that in the State of Mississippi. I can tell you, for 15 years, they didn't. And for 15 years, I did not allow that status to be placed on the property. One of the last clubs on the coast for that to happen. We were the last county to do it, because they were the last ones to do what was required for them to meet the statutory obligation. I understand what she's saying, I really do. And to be candid, it might surprise her, some of it personally, I don't even disagree with. But that's not my job, to put my personal beliefs in order here. My job is to do what I'm statutorily, civilly required to do."
LaFontaine said that Ladner is elected by the voters.
"I would say that through all 82 counties, I would say that supervisors probably don't get into the weeds of the day-to-day operations and what statutorily you have the authority to enforce and follow those guidelines," LaFontaine said. "If we're discussing the terms of transparency or the yacht club's ability for it be a benevolent organization, I think that would rest with trying to change state's laws, not necessarily internal policies for the board."
Ladner said that if such a requirement were asked of him through a board order, he would "have to oppose it to protect the authority of his office."
Noonan asked when the tax rolls are approved.
Ladner said they are submitted to the board on the first working Monday of July.
"For the month of July, they are open for public inspection," Ladner said. "In today's world, you would come in as a taxpayer and say I would want to see this parcel or that parcel and we would copy it for you. If during the month of July, you and I can't reach an agreement as to what you and I think are fair value, status, or whatever your case may be. Then by 5 p.m. the first Monday of August, as the property owner, you file an appeal with the board of supervisors. The board of supervisors at that point would set a hearing and they would ask as a board of equalization. They would hear your side, my side and they could decided your way or my way."
Ladner said the BWYC was officially taken off the rolls on Jan. 1, 2016. BWYC was on the rolls of 2016 as exempt property, he added.
Noonan said that the alliance's position is that the board be more engaged in the process.
"I don't think we have a statutory authority," LaFontaine said. "Our process is for something that is an appeal that's in there."
In other action:
The State of the County Address has been rescheduled for Sept. 13 at 8 a.m. at the Hollywood Casino ballroom.
The board scheduled a meeting for Sept. 14 at 8 a.m. to adopt the tax levy and FY 2019 budget.
The next regular board meeting is scheduled for Sept. 17 at 9 a.m.