FULTON, Mo. - Can the county commission take money from the special Assessment Fund created by state law?
Cole County Assessor Chris Estes said no, and refused to pay the county's $39,411 bill for 2012.
Now-retired Cole County Senior Judge Byron Kinder ruled last April 17 that the commission "does not need permission from the Assessor to expend funds from the Assessment Fund."
So Wednesday afternoon, Estes sat in William Woods University's mock courtroom and watched as his attorney urged three judges of Missouri's Kansas City District appeals court to agree with the assessor and overturn Kinder's four-page ruling.
"This case concerns the power of the Cole County Commission to sweep funds from a special fund, the Cole County Assessment Fund, to the Cole County general revenue fund," said Columbia attorney David G. Brown.
He said the Legislature had created an "overarching scheme, by which all of the county assessors perform this assessment function - assessing all the real and personal property - and it benefits the state as a whole, so they created a funding mechanism to pay the costs of that."
That process requires the assessor, every two years, to give the State Tax Commission "a proposed assessment and maintenance plan," which the commission reviews and endorses or modifies.
Brown said the county commission then is free to accept the Tax Commission's decision, or challenge it before the state's separate Administrative Hearing Commission.
"When the assessor submits his budget (to the Tax Commission) in the assessment maintenance plan and has no line item to reimburse the county for these expenses and, instead, has a line item to buy (his own) new computer system," Brown said, "if there's a dispute about how those funds are going to be used, the Legislature wanted finality and agreement.
"They wanted this to go to the Administrative Hearing Commission, to have a hearing on the specific issues."
Instead, he argued, the Cole County Commission waited and then sought reimbursement for expenses that the county, not the assessor, should be paying.
Brown told the appeals court that lawmakers said the county commission has "the duty to provide the essential equipment and offices to all of the (county) officers - and that that would be paid out of the general revenue of the county," not the special assessor's fund.
But Jill LaHue, the Cole County Commission's general counsel, countered that lawmakers wanted the commission to have access to the assessment fund in order to pay the bills.
"The statute about the county equipping offices does not prohibit reimbursements - it just says the county will provide these things," she said. "So, instead of each elected official buying his own building or contracting for electricity, the county commission provides all of that and provides a place for them to conduct business."
LaHue noted a "chunk of the funding" in the assessment fund "comes off the top of property taxes, into that fund" instead of going into general revenue.
"This really is something that is in lieu of general revenue, that the Legislature sought to put into general revenue," she said.
Under questioning from Judge Cynthia Martin, LaHue said the Cole County Commission seeks reimbursement only from offices, like the assessor, that have separate funds and don't rely only on general revenue.
But, she added, she thinks state law "is pretty clear, that the county commission is the one who pays expenses from that fund, for all the expenses of the assessor's office."
Under questioning from Judge Mark Pfeiffer, LaHue acknowledged that the assessor's office is the only one required by state law to pay the office-holder, all other employees and all office expenses from the separate fund, while those expenses in other offices are paid from general revenue.
The legal battle began after Estes refused to sign that 2012 bill for the computer and information technology services, and those services were shut off on Jan. 2, 2013.
The services were restored after Estes sued the commission and got a temporary restraining order.