The Cole County Commission decided this week it will not continue to fund a legal battle with Ameren Missouri over the assessed value of the company's property in the county in 2013.
Ameren Missouri has challenged the property assessments of its natural gas distribution equipment in 16 counties, including Cole, since 2013. Prior to Cole County's decision this week, six of the 16 counties had settled with Ameren.
Ameren Missouri officials argued they consistently followed tax guidelines for depreciation per the Missouri Tax Commission's required form of return. They also maintain overpaying taxes would hurt their customers and by following tax guidelines they are helping keep rates lower for their customers.
State law gives the County Commission authority over finances to pay for litigation expenses, County Attorney Jill Lahue said.
As of Wednesday, Cole County Finance Officer Debbie Malzner said, the county has paid nearly $699,000 in legal fees and costs to bring in expert witnesses in the case. These growing costs had been concerning commissioners in recent years and eventually led to their decision this week.
In 2013, Jefferson City Public Schools, the Blair Oaks School District, Cole R-1 (Russellville) School District, Missouri River Regional Library and Jefferson City government entered into a cost-sharing agreement with Cole County for fees associated with the case. Malzner said the last figures she had were from December 2018, showing the five taxing districts had paid $118,405 and the county has never asked for more.
For as long as the legal battle continues, the property taxes Ameren has paid under protest remain locked in escrow with the counties — revenue not flowing into the budgets of taxing districts like public schools, fire departments, libraries, public works, the counties and the state.
Cole County Collector Larry Vincent said he had held $580,398 in escrow from the property taxes Ameren paid on its property in 2013, which totaled $943,038.
With the commission's decision this week, of the $580,398 that had been in escrow, Ameren will be refunded $496,346, Vincent said. The remaining $84,052 will be split among the 18 taxing entities in the county, with 75 percent of that amount going to public school districts. Vincent noted the Jefferson City School District will lose $355,833 in revenue.
"I feel bad that it's going to affect the schools the most, but we've invested enough money in this, and I think we just had to throw in the towel," Cole County Presiding Commissioner Sam Bushman said Wednesday.
The appeal process continues over the assessments of Ameren property for 2014-19 from Cole County. This week, the Cole County Board of Equalization voted to uphold the assessor's office's 2020 assessment for Ameren so the county can continue to argue to the Tax Commission that the original assessment is correct.
The board left Ameren's 2020 market value at $52.4 million. Ameren claimed the value should be $26.5 million. Ameren was billed a total of $1,047,514 in Cole County property tax for 2019.
"For the most part, I agree with the commission's decision," Cole County Assessor Chris Estes said. "I did not feel we would have a different outcome unless the case reached the Missouri Supreme Court, and I didn't see that happening."