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High court reverses tax decision

December 15, 2010

An owner of leased property must prove it possesses an exempt purpose separate and distinct from the exempt purpose of its lessee to be entitled to statutory exemption, ruled the Indiana Supreme Court in a decision reversing the Indiana Tax Court.

The justices held in Hamilton County Property Tax Assessment Board of Appeals & Hamilton County Assessor v. Oaken Bucket Partners, LLC, No. 49S10-1003-TA-140, just charging below market rent for part of a building rented to a church is insufficient to justify a religious and charitable purpose property tax exemption.

Oaken Bucket filed an exemption application with the Hamilton County Property Tax Assessment Board of Appeals seeking a charitable and religious purposes exemption on the portion of its building that it leased to Heartland Church Inc. The county board denied the application. Oaken Bucket claimed to charge the church below market-value rent, a fact the county board disputed before the Indiana Board of Tax Review when Oaken Bucket appealed the earlier decision. The Indiana Board of Tax Review affirmed the county board’s decision. Oaken Bucket appealed again and the Tax Court reversed, reasoning there was insufficient evidence supporting the state board’s decision.

Even assuming Oaken Bucket charged below market-rate rent to the church, that fact alone has little bearing on the question of whether Oaken Bucket possessed its own exempt purposes.

“Stated somewhat differently, where an entity charges below market rent to a charitable or religious organization, this may demonstrate some indicia of the entity’s beneficent motives. But more is required to show that the entity possesses its own exempt purposes,” wrote Justice Robert Rucker.

Heartland is a nonprofit and possesses an exempt purpose in its own right, but besides arguing that it charges the church below market-rate rent, Oaken Bucket hasn’t shown an exempt purpose separate from that of the church.

“At most what Oaken Bucket has proven is that it leased and primarily used its property for religious and charitable purposes. This is laudable. But in order to qualify for an exemption the property, among other things, must be ‘owned’ for religious and charitable purposes,” wrote the justice.  “And absent evidence that an owner of leased property possesses an exempt purpose separate and distinct from the exempt purpose of its lessee, the owner holds the property for its own benefit, not that of the public, and thus its property is not entitled to the statutory exemption.”
 

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