Court upholds building’s 2009 tax exemption

Former Cole County Circuit Judge Richard Callahan was right, the state court of appeals ruled Tuesday, when he rejected Assessor Chris Estes’ effort to appraise and tax property owned by the Missouri Retired Teachers Foundation in 2009.

But Callahan’s Jan. 6, 2010, ruling also prohibited the assessor “from reporting the property on its tax rolls” in future years.

That part of the ruling was beyond the judge’s authority, the Kansas City court’s three-judge panel said.

So Estes lost his effort to add $40,420 property assessment to last year’s books, but perhaps could add a taxable value for future years.

The property, now with an office building which includes office space leased to the Missouri Retired Teachers Association, is listed as having a nearly $644,000 appraised value.

Estes had not seen the court’s ruling when contacted Tuesday afternoon for a comment for this story. He said he wanted to consult with his attorney about the ruling and the options they must consider before discussing the case publicly.

The case involved a then-vacant lot, at 3030 DuPont Circle, that the not-for-profit Retired Teachers Foundation bought in September 2005, just west of Truman Boulevard.

Then-Assessor Shawn Ordway told the group in October 2005 the land qualified for a tax exemption, under a state law that exempts “all property, real and personal, actually and regularly used exclusively for religious worship, for schools and colleges, or for purposes purely charitable and not held for private or corporate profit.”

But court documents said Estes, who succeeded Ordway, last year questioned the exemption, telling the foundation that “vacant real property is not being ‘used’ and, thus, cannot be exempt under” that law.

However, he added, the foundation could seek another exemption for the 2010 tax year, based on how it used the building it was constructing when the assessment argument began.

The Board of Equalization agreed with Estes, and the foundation took the case to court.

Callahan heard the arguments in November 2009 and ruled on Jan. 6, 2010 — one of his last rulings before he resigned to accept President Obama’s appointment as the U.S. attorney for eastern Missouri.

In Tuesday’s eight-page ruling, written for the three-judge appeals court panel by Cynthia L. Martin, the court ruled that “as of January 1, 2009, the office building was not complete. Thus ... the Property was properly classified as vacant.”

And, the appeals court added, Estes’ arguments have focused on taxing the property after the building — which now houses the Missouri Retired Teachers Association — was completed.

But since that argument didn’t deal with whether the vacant property could be taxed, the court ruled, “The Assessor has thus failed to assert or preserve any claim that the Judgment is in error with respect to the Property’s eligibility for exemption” last year.

However, the judges added, because the November 2009 trial came before any property assessment could be determined for Jan. 1, 2010, “We are required, therefore, to reverse the Judgment of the trial court insofar as it determines the Property’s eligibility for exemption for any tax year other than 2009.”

And that leaves the parties with no decision about whether the property now is subject to another property tax fight.

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