Chesterton Tribune



Tax exemption for lease for prosecutor division in question

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Monday the Porter County Property Tax Assessment Board of Appeals continued a hearing on the tax exemption benefiting 15 Franklin LLC for property at 15 N. Franklin in Valparaiso.

No one was present to represent 15 Franklin LLC yesterday afternoon, and the audience was empty except for press.

Board member Scott Williams stated that he wanted to comment on the request for continuance. “I know this board has set a precedent to always grant continuances. However, I think you still need to look at each case individually and see if a continuance is warranted,” he said. “In this case, I believe there has been ample time.”

The property is in question after the Board of Commissioners and County Attorney Scott McClure discovered in June that a lease for the Porter County Prosecutor’s Child Support division, housed in offices at 15 Franklin, was renewed years early at an above market value price--and the renewal was completed at a 2014 Board of Commissioners meeting where one Commissioner was absent and the item wasn’t on the agenda.

The renewal of the lease put a hitch in the current Commissioners’ plans to move a host of County offices into the old jail building they acquired for $3.6 million in April as part of their $30 million capital improvements plan. The Child Support division is one of the offices they wanted to move, due to the money that could be saved from not leasing outside office space.

When the lease was secured, the building was owned by Courtney Morgan LLC, whose registered business agent with the Indiana Secretary of State was Valparaiso business man and Treasurer of the Indiana Republican Party Chuck Williams. Courtney Morgan LLC sold the building to 15 Franklin LLC, whose registered business agent is Valparaiso Attorney William Ferngren, shortly after the 10-year lease extension in question was secured. Chuck Williams secured a tax exemption for the property beginning in 2009, which has saved 15 Franklin LLC nearly a year’s worth of the rent it charges to the Child Support division in tax breaks, according to County Auditor Vicki Urbanik.

In the lease, the office space used by Child Support is said to be 3,200 square feet, the application for the tax exemption claims it is 3,972-- an independent assessment professional concluded last month that the space is only 2,758.

Given that the Board has those measurements, Scott Williams continued his commentary. “I think the question has been answered. I think there is enough evidence to present this case today.” He added that he was “disappointed” that the taxpayer did not appear ready to present the case.

Board Attorney Bob Schwerd says the question is not about measurements anymore, but about whether the exemption itself is proper. Now, further legal opinions are required.

Schwerd noted that the state statute allowing some property owners to apply for tax exemptions on properties they lease to municipal entities is unclear, and the representatives of 15 Franklin LLC “want the opportunity to argue.”

Porter County Assessor Jon Snyder said the exemption was last renewed by PTABOA in 2016, and the County Council prompted him to look into the building’s square footage after the lease surprise. Snyder thought the exemption was in order until then because he said PTABOA has “stringent guidelines for exemptions.”

After Snyder said the merit of the independent assessment was questioned, he repeated that his interest began at the urging of other officials. “This wasn’t the assessor going on the warpath and saying ‘I’m gonna pick on 15 Franklin.”

After discussion, the Board opted unanimously to continue the case to its Oct. 29 meeting, with the stipulation that the case will be heard on that date and not continued again.

According to officials at the Assessor’s office, it’s unclear who will represent 15 Franklin at the next hearing. Snyder said in a July 30 letter to the County Council that he was contacted by Sharon Allen, who claimed to be the new property manager at 15 Franklin, and Allen worked with the independent assessor.

Peggy Hendron, residential real estate supervisor for the Assessor’s Office, said she isn’t sure if Allen is the property manager. “She’s signing as the manager, but we haven’t confirmed from any evidence that she is.”

Hendron said the letter requesting continuance was hand-delivered to the Assessor’s office by Ferngren on Aug. 31. The letter was signed by Allen, and asked that further communication go to both Allen and Ferngren.

The contact information that Allen provided to the Assessor appears to indicate that she is professionally affiliated with Chuck Williams. When asked if she works for Chuck Willams and what her job title is in a phone call just before deadline today, Allen said she was rushing into a meeting and would call back later.





Posted 9/11/2018




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