Mill Suit Could Tax Services Schools Would Be Big Loser If Crown Pacific Wins Lower Tax Bill, Rankin Says

Schools, fire departments, libraries and hospitals may be stuck with a $640,000 bill if Crown Pacific wins a lawsuit over the value of its local sawmill, Kootenai County Commissioner Ron Rankin charged Thursday.

“They are out talking about what great corporate citizens they are, … handing out a couple of $1,000 checks to schools with one hand while they are trying to beat the school district out of $271,000,” Rankin said. “I think this is the epitome of corporate greed and corporate hypocrisy.”

Although the county twice has offered to reduce the timber giant’s $14.8 million assessment - once by $3 million and later by $6 million - “they won’t deal, they won’t talk, they won’t compromise,” Rankin said.

Crown Pacific officials say they can’t comment on the case because it is in court. The trial is set for next March.

The fight flared in 1994 when Crown told Kootenai County it wanted a 75 percent reduction in the value that tax assessors had set for the Coeur d’Alene mill. Crown is arguing that “economic obsolescence” justifies the drop in valuation, saying that high log prices, low finished lumber prices and tight log supplies make the mill worth less.

The county said the operation was worth about $16 million, but Crown argues it’s worth $3.8 million.

Crown filed similar appeals for 1995, missed the deadline for appealing its 1996 taxes, but also is appealing the 1997 valuation.

Rankin expects that the company will take similar issue with its 1998 taxes. If the timber company wins, Rankin estimates county taxpayers will have to fork over $640,000 to make up for the lost property taxes from 1994, 1995, 1997 and 1998.

The school district will be hit hardest - losing an estimated $271,000.

Crown is suing Bonner County over its Colburn mill and the closed Albeni Falls mill. The company settled a suit with Bonner County this week over the assessment of its Bonners Ferry mill, but won’t comment on the details.

Kootenai County didn’t want this fight. Before he died last year, Assessor Tom Moore offered to reduce Crown’s assessment, but by less than the company wanted.

At that point, the county figured it would spend much more in legal costs that it would save in tax revenue, Rankin said.

To date, the litigation has cost the county more than $100,000 and the long, expensive trial hasn’t even started. Rankin is burned not only that the county is stuck with that bill, but that a “mega-corporation” such as Crown has the resources to keep the litigation rolling until the county is forced to capitulate.

“I think they figure they can outspend us, out lawyer us, outlast us. …” Rankin said.

Commissioner Dick Panabaker said he’s angry that the Idaho attorney general’s office and the State Tax Commission won’t help with the litigation. If Crown is successful, other industries may seize the legal precedent and use it all over the state, he said.

Timber mills in Latah, Gem and Valley county are pursing similar suits.

The State Tax Commission and the attorney general’s office say they don’t have attorneys to send to Kootenai County to try the case, but they have offered technical assistance.

Before 1993, the Idaho Tax Commission assessed industrial property in the state. Then the counties decided they should take that job, noted William von Tagen, of the attorney general’s office.

In those days, “if an industrial appraisal done by the tax commission was challenged, the attorney general defended it.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo

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