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Tax board backing assessor's view on retirement residence

Jul 27, 2012 - By Martin Reed, Staff Writer

The Fremont County Commission is supporting assessor Tara Berg's determination that the non-profit Mountain Vista Retirement Residence in Lander is not exempt from property taxation.

On June 17, commissioners, convening as the Fremont County Board of Equalization, listened to arguments made by representatives from each side in the property tax protest.

More than 30 people, most of whom were senior citizens with interests in the facility, attended the hearing in the commission chambers.

Mountain Vista representatives are seeking the tax-exempt status as a charitable and benevolent organization, but the assessor's office labels the group as a commercial operation.

The facility has paid property taxes of more than $10,000 annually since 2008, and in excess of $8,000 going back to 2005, according to data provided by Fremont County government.

Charity or not?

At the hearing's conclusion, four commissioners voiced support for Berg's stance. Commission chairman Doug Thompson sided with Mountain Vista.

"It was hard for me to conclude that they were a charity given the amount of money (residents) pay for rent or lease on those places," commission vice chairman Pat Hickerson said later.

Documents filed in the case indicated the residents pay a minimum $10,000 membership fee and monthly leases of at least $1,540.

"They are a wonderful organization, and it is certainly nice for the citizens that live there, but it doesn't really seem to be charitable since they pay for what they get," Hickerson said.

Commissioners acting as the equalization board did not take formal action during the hearing, but they expect to finalize their order at their meeting Aug. 7.

Appellant's case

As part of their argument, Mountain Vista service director Darcy Englert and facility board president Bill Farthing rejected the assessor's decision to tax the entity because it does not provide free, furnished housing.

"Their argument requiring free furnished senior housing for exemption is a violation of the intent of the standards," according to a filed statement signed by Farthing for the hearing.

"An entity simply charging seniors for unfurnished space, including amenities and with reduced charges, is commercial enterprise," according to Farthing's statement on behalf of the board of directors.

The non-profit entity provides "many services and activities beyond mere housing," Englert told the equalization board.

The case file included a full-page list of services provided at Mountain Vista such as civic, cultural, social and recreational activities, as well as various emergency and maintenance functions provided to residents and their homes.

Narrow interpretation

Mountain Vista said the assessor is using a single sentence out of the state laws and standards for determining property tax exemption to make the determination.

The sentence in the Wyoming Department of Revenue rules states: "A retirement home is taxable if the residents provide their own furnishings and are charged for the cost of operating the home, including extra amenities enjoyed by the residents."

The section continues: "Such a retirement home constitutes a commercial enterprise, even if operated on a non-profit basis with reduced charges."

Berg's office said that Mountain Vista does not fall under the state criteria listed for charitable and benevolent "because its primary purpose is not charity," according to documents filed in the case.

"Although Mountain Vista was organized as a nonprofit entity and declares they only charge enough to cover expenses and maintain the facility with no profit, the membership fee, security deposit and monthly service fee do not speak to a charitable function," Berg stated in documents.

"An organization whose membership is limited to those individuals with the financial resources to live in the retirement center while excluding others who cannot meet the financial bar set by the Board of Directors is not a true charitable or benevolent organization," she stated.

The facility accepts "active persons 55 years of age and older," according to documents in the case, and residents must be ambulatory and in good physical and mental health for their age.

Facility managers screen residents before their acceptance, according to documents. Residents also provide their own furnishings and pay utilities.

Similar properties

Although Mountain Vista said the assessor exempts other entities who charge fees for similarly unfurnished space, Berg said her office taxes those properties, which include Showboat Retirement Center and Lynne Gardens in Lander.

"Places like Showboat are very similar, and they are a for-profit," Hickerson said. "It's kind of the same thing."

Commissioner Keja Whiteman agreed that Mountain Vista should be taxed.

"I thought that while Mountain Vista ... provided a good service, I don't think that they are a charity under the definition of charitable and benevolent. In the statute I don't think they met that obligation," Whiteman said.

"I think that they are a commercial enterprise. Maybe they go the extra mile for their clientele or their residents ... but it's still a service industry, a commercial service industry," she said.

Hickerson noted the case highlights problems with language in state laws that need clarification. "The Department of Revenue rules are not very good. It's not very clear," he said.

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