Hamilton County property owner’s suit over fire stations belongs in plenary courts, tax court rules

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A Clay Township property owner who attempted and failed to have his day in court with a Hamilton Superior Court and then with the Indiana Tax Court could not convince either that they had subject matter jurisdiction in his case seeking relief from increased taxes.

Troubles for Eric Morris began years before he brought a lawsuit in Hamilton Superior Court No. 4. In 2012, Morris purchased a property located in an unincorporated area of the township, commonly known as Home Place, adjacent to the city of Carmel.

For nearly 10 years the city provided fire protection services to the residents of Home Place under a series of annual “Contracts for Fire Protection” with Clay Township. The contract required Clay Township to pay its proportionate share of Carmel’s fire department budget based on the ratio of total assessed valuation of unincorporated property compared to the total assessed valuation of the property within Carmel.

The contracts also provided that Clay Township would agree to seek Department of Local Government Finance approval for an appropriation from its Fire Fighting Fund to pay the city.

But Morris sued after Clay Township and Carmel agreed to impose a uniform tax rate on all of the taxable property throughout the township — including Home Place — in order to fund and build two additional fire stations projects.

His small claims complaint, which also stated his claims were based on “Incorrect Taxation” against the township, argued that it had violated the Interlocal Agreement by imposing costs for those facilities solely on areas outside Carmel and that it had imposed taxes on unincorporated areas in violation of its annual fire contract with the city.

Clay Township moved to dismiss Morris’ complaint for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, arguing that the Indiana Tax Court had exclusive jurisdiction over the case, not Hamilton Superior Court No. 4. After the trial court dismissed his case, the Hamilton County Property Tax Assessment Board of Appeals made a similar move and denied Morris’ three notices to initiate an appeal seeking relief under the Indiana Uniform Declaratory Judgments Act.

The Indiana Board in its final determination also dismissed his appeals, which the Indiana Tax Court affirmed Friday in Eric S. Morris v. Hamilton County Assessor, 20T-TA-19.

“The Indiana Board found it had no authority to address Morris’s appeals brought under the UDJA because that Act did not apply to administrative agencies. Now, on appeal, Morris claims that by holding its administrative hearing and reviewing the parties’ evidence, the Indiana Board demonstrated that it actually did have the authority to address the issues raised in his appeals,” Judge Martha Wentworth wrote for the Tax Court.

Acknowledging that Morris did not bring claims that included the assessed valuation of tangible property, property tax deductions, property tax exemptions or property tax credits, the tax court concluded that the Indiana board did not err in its determination.

Neither did Morris show that the Indiana Board erred in dismissing his appeals on the basis that the UDJA extends to the Indiana Board, it concluded.

“At its heart, Morris’s appeal is that Clay Township violated its Interlocal Agreements with Carmel, Fire Fund 1111, and various statutory and constitutional provisions by failing to account for certain expenditures. Morris’s appeal therefore does not arise under the tax laws of Indiana and is not an original tax appeal. Consequently, the Court cannot assume jurisdiction over his appeal under the UDJA,” Wentworth wrote.

In a footnote, the Tax Court noted that while it is “sympathetic to Morris’s predicament, it cannot decide the merits of his case because it is a contract case, not a property tax case. Consequently, Morris’s remedy lies in the plenary courts.”

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