"Economic development tools are under assult in Louisiana by tax assessors"
Louisiana tax assessors have begun assessing taxes on properties that have been exempt from property tax under economic development incentive programs, undermining one of the state's essential tools for promoting job growth and commerce.
Louisiana offers a handful of enticements to attract new business and spur economic development, including the industrial property tax exemption, inventory tax credits, payments in lieu of taxes (PILOTs) and cooperative endeavor agreements (CEAs) with private companies. Each of these incentives involves reducing a private entity's property tax liability.
Article 7, Section 14 of the Louisiana Constitution authorizes the state and its political subdivisions to enter into cooperative endeavor agreements that serve a public purpose, and Section 21 of the same article provides that public lands and other public property used for public purposes are exempt from property tax. The Louisiana Supreme Court has also recognized that economic development is a public purpose.
Under a typical cooperative endeavor agreement, a political subdivision leases industrial property to a private entity for development and operation. Since a political subdivision owns the property, it is exempt from property taxes. Unfortunately, some assessing authorities have decided otherwise, and have attempted to collect property tax in connection with these assets.
In Pine Prairie Energy Center LLC vs. Soileau, in 2014, a local industrial development board issued bonds and loaned the proceeds to privately held Pine Prairie to build an underground natural gas storage facility and associated facilities and pipelines. Prior to entering into the transactions, the industrial development board, Pine Prairie, and even the local tax assessor all agreed that, as long as Pine Prairie paid the agreed-upon lease payments and payments in lieu of taxes, the property would be exempt from property taxes during the lease period.
Pine Prairie built the facility, sold it to the industrial development board and then leased the property back for operations. The assessor subsequently listed the property on the tax rolls as Pine Prairie's property. Pine Prairie paid the taxes under protest and sued for a refw1d and declaratory judgment that it did not owe property taxes on an asset owned by the industrial development board.
The assessor contended that the property was not being used for a public purpose. The Third Circuit Court of Appeal noted that actual public use was not the criteria by which public purpose was determined. Rather, public use is synonymous with public benefit, public utility or public advantage, and involves using the natural resources and advantages of a locality to extract their full development in view of the general welfare.
Considering that Pine Prairie's investment resulted in approximately $700 million in local economic value, the court held that the project was beneficial to the public and thus the property was indeed being used for a public purpose.
In Board of Commissioner of Port of New Orleans vs. City of New Orleans, the Port of New Orleans leased property to two private entities that provide warehousing, freight forwarding and intermodal transportation services at the port. As i n Pine Prairie, the assessor assessed property taxes on the private companies that leased the properties, not on the public entity that owned them. When the companies failed to pay the taxes, the assessor attempted to sell the leased properties at a public tax sale.
The assessor argued that, because the activities of the private companies did not qualify as a public purpose as they did not constitute a governmental function, a benefit to the general public or a dedication for use by the general public, the property was not being used for a public purpose. The port authority demonstrated that the companies' activities were necessary for the operation of a port facility and that they furthered its broad public mission to maintain, develop and promote commerce and traffic at the port. The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal punted on the question in 2014, and ordered a hearing on whether the specific activities conducted by the companies served a public purpose. That case is ongoing.
Cases like these obviously erode business confidence in the reliability of tax incentives. Although Pine Prairie won its case, it had to pay some $122,000 in taxes under protest and then sue to recover its funds. And the Port of New Orleans had its property seized and offered at tax sale, and now has to prove up that traditional port activities like warehousing, freight forwarding and intermodal transportation services, which have always been necessary to the operation of a port facility, serve a public purpose. This kind of uncertainty is devastating to economic development efforts.