Tax Court has jurisdiction in riverboat casino case, judge affirms

Arguments about who has jurisdiction in an Indiana riverboat casino case ended Thursday with a ruling that the Indiana Tax Court has retained jurisdiction over the case.

In May 2018, the Tax Court affirmed in part and reversed in part a final determination of the Indiana Board of Tax Review’s valuation of Belterra Resort Indiana’s real property for 2009 and 2014. In her decision, Judge Martha Blood Wentworth affirmed the board’s decision that Belterra’s valuation of its hotel was not supported by evidence, while reversing the board’s adoption of Switzerland County’s going concern valuation.

The Tax Court provided instructions on recomputing Belterra’s assessments and remanded the matter back to the board, which instructed the Switzerland County assessor to comply with the court’s instructions. However, the board stated its belief that it was only required to order an assessment and not actually oversee the re-computation process.

Three months later no assessments had been entered, and Belterra moved to enforce the May 2018 decision by issuing an order to show cause why its decision had not been executed. The assessor responded that the court lacked subject matter jurisdiction to decide the motion and subsequently filed a motion for leave to file surreply as the show cause motion was pending, alleging the final assessed values had been assigned to the property and the process for issuing refunds to Belterra had already been consummated. The assessor further argued that any issues Belterra had would need to be taken up with a court of competent jurisdiction in Switzerland County.

But in Switzerland County Assessor v. Belterra Resort Indiana, LLC, 49T10-1705-TA-9, the Tax Court rejected the assessor’s claims that it lacked subject matter jurisdiction to rule on Belterra’s motion because the board’s order on remand or the purported assignment of final assessed values was the final disposition of the case.

“The Assessor, however, did not present any evidence that either was a final disposition and Belterra was not provided notice that included its appeal rights – a necessary component of a final disposition,” Wentworth wrote. “Accordingly, this matter is still in the Court-ordered remand phase and has not reached the point of final disposition.”

The Tax Court further rejected the assessor’s claim that the judgment entry issued concurrently with the May 2018 decision made it clear that jurisdiction lies with the board on remand and not the Tax Court. Wentworth also rejected the assessor’s final claim that jurisdiction was never properly invoked because the  board’s order on remand did not “refer” the matter, or make a “referral,” to the county Property Tax Assessment Board of Appeals as required by Indiana Code § 6-1.1-15-8(a).

“Accordingly, it was not sufficient for the Indiana Board to simply order the Assessor to prepare a compliant assessment in this case. Indeed, the Indiana Board must ensure that the Court’s instructions contained in its May 24, 2018, opinion have been specifically carried out,” Wentworth wrote.

“This oversight process guarantees that the Indiana Board – Indiana’s assessment and property tax expert – has determined the accuracy of a corrected assessment, reducing the possibility that additional judicial resources must be expended,” the judge concluded. “Moreover, as a practical matter, the Indiana Board’s oversight insulates an assessor – typically a party in property assessment cases – from the appearance that she advanced her own self-interest.”

Wentworth thus granted Belterra’s motion and ordered the board to verify and provide written notice to the parties in the case that the corrected assessments comply with the Tax Court’s instructions for correcting assessments in the May 2018 decision.

Specifically, the Tax Court ordered that Belterra’s 2009 assessment start with the 2008 assessed value of the entire property and remove from that value the portion attributable to the Riverboat and replace it with $4,327,000. For Belterra’s 2014 assessment, it ordered a start from the property’s 2008 assessed value and remove from that value the portion attributable to the Riverboat and replace it with $3.5 million. Additionally, it ordered the removal from the 2008 assessed value of the entire property the portion attributable to the golf course, replaced with $3 million.

Finally, in a footnote, Wentworth addressed the assessor’s “post-decision actions” that were “intended to reduce the adverse effects of the Court’s decision.”

“First, the Assessor conjured an ambiguity in the Court’s instructions for calculating the corrected assessments where there was none,” the judge wrote. “Then, when corrected values were presumably based on that conjured ambiguity, the Assessor invented procedural infirmities to prevent the Court from enforcing its decision.

“Taxpayers deserve more than taxation by trickery,” Wentworth said, “and the Court will not countenance such actions.”

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