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Tax exemption doesn't apply to hotel utilities

June 17, 2009

The Indiana Supreme Court was split today in its ruling on whether a hotel was entitled to a sales tax exemption on utilities it purchased during 2004 and 2005. The majority held the exemption that allows hotels to skip paying sales tax on tangible personal property - soap and shampoo - used by guests, doesn't extend to utilities because the hotel, and not the guests, uses those utilities.

The issue arose in Indiana Department of Revenue v. Kitchin Hospitality, LLC, No. 49S10-0808-TA-474, after the Indiana Tax Court held for the years at issue, the utilities consumed in Kitchin Hospitality's hotels guest rooms qualified for the tangible personal property exemption.

Indiana Code Section 6-2.5-5-35 was amended in 1992 to exempt hotels from paying sales tax on tangible items used or consumed by guests. The 1992 exemption, which the opinion refers to as the Section 35 Exemption, didn't define "tangible personal property." In 2003, while adopting the "Streamlined Sales and Use Tax Agreement" (SSUTA), the legislature included a definition of it in I.C. Section 6-2.5-1-27. The 2003 definition defined tangible personal property to include electricity, water, gas, steam, and pre-written computer software. The language of the 1992 exemption wasn't changed until 2007 when the legislature specified that the exemption doesn't apply to electricity, water, gas, or steam transactions. The change came after this litigation began.

The majority analyzed the language of the 1992 exemption differently than the Tax Court, which concluded the language of the exemption didn't require a hotel guest to directly consume the utilities. The high court ruled tangible personal property must be used up or otherwise consumed during the occupation of the rooms and must be used up or consumed by a guest. Not reading it in this manner could lead to cleaning supplies or the water used to clean the hotel sheets to become exempt from sales tax, wrote Justice Frank Sullivan for the majority.

"Reading the 2007 amendment to the Section 35 Exemption as a clarification of the law is consistent with the purpose of Indiana's adoption of the (Streamlined Sales Tax Project) and its model provisions - to simplify and modernize the administration and collection of the state's sales and use taxes," he wrote. "Thus the Legislature in all likelihood enacted the definition of "tangible personal property" in I.C. § 6-2.5-1-27 to bring the state into compliance with the SSUTA, not to render utilities eligible for the Section 35 Exemption."

The hotels had single electric, water, and gas meters for the entire facility and the hotels didn't monitor each guest's usage. The utilities are used up or consumed in the guest rooms whether they are occupied or vacant, so they are used up by the hotel and not the guests, wrote the justice.

The majority reversed the Indiana Tax Court's decision and affirmed the Indiana Department of Revenue's decision to deny Kitchin exemptions from sales tax under I.C. Section 6-2.5-5-35.

Justice Brent Dickson dissented in a separate opinion with which Justice Robert Rucker concurred, believing the facts and law of the case warrant the deferral to the determination of the Tax Court which was created to "consolidated tax-related litigation in one court of expertise," Justice Dickson wrote.

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