Skico to get hefty tax refund check |

Skico to get hefty tax refund check

Jeremy Heiman

Pitkin County will return more than $100,000 in property tax money to Aspen Skiing Co., but the county hopes the refund is only temporary.

The Skico, along with two other Aspen businesses, has asked for abatements, or refunds, on taxes paid on business property that the businesses lease but do not own. Pitkin County Tuesday turned down the abatements, but is making arrangements for the businesses to keep the money at least until the Colorado Supreme Court rules on an appeal by the county.

The tax is levied against ski area land the Skico leases on a long-term basis from the federal government, because the business has what is known as a possessory interest in the property. Habitat Galleries and Bentley’s both have long-term business leases on property owned by the city of Aspen in the Wheeler Opera House building. The county assessor’s office considers this leased property taxable.

The Skico has asked for a refund of $126,464 in possessory interest taxes collected in 1996 and 1997. Bentley’s is requesting

$11,967 for those years, while Habitat’s owner, Sandy Hagopian isn’t sure what amount she is due, because Habitat’s tax went partially unpaid.

The county attorney’s office is in the process of writing an agreement that will allow the county to return the money to the businesses. This will relieve the county of the burden of the 12 percent annual interest that would be due the businesses if the court were to rule against the county.

Bentley’s owner Keith Hatanaka, however, has asked that Bentley’s possessory interest taxes not be returned.

County Assessor Tom Isaac said the abatement requests were turned down because if they had been approved, the county couldn’t ask for the money back in the event of a favorable ruling by the Supreme Court. Isaac said the county also didn’t want to jeopardize its position in the court case by granting the abatements – a move that wouldn’t be consistent with the the county’s contention that the money is owed.

County Attorney John Ely said the Colorado Supreme Court might not be able to rule on the county’s case for as long as two years. But Isaac said he believes a ruling could be expected sooner.

To get their tax money refunded, the business owners must each sign a note that will obligate them to return the money to the county once again if the Supreme Court decides to hear the county’s appeal and then finds in the county’s favor.

In the absence of a Supreme Court opinion on the matter, the county will continue to bill the businesses for the possessory interest taxes, but, if Commissioner Mick Ireland’s suggestion is followed, the businesses will submit a promissory note instead of a check in payment.

The Skico requested a refund of its tax money after decision two weeks ago by the Colorado Court of Appeals, which upheld a ruling by a trial court that such leased property is not taxable.

Pitkin County contends the taxes are owed because, in 1995, the state Supreme Court ruled that counties could collect “possessory interest” taxes on land leased from the federal government. But in 1996, the Colorado Legislature passed a bill barring possessory interest taxes. The appeals court ruling supports the constitutionality of that legislation.

Attorney Boots Ferguson, of Holland and Hart, a firm representing the Skico, chastised county commissioners for pursuing the possessory taxes in the face of the 1995 legislation. “I think it’s highly inappropriate for this board to ignore the law,” Ferguson said.

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