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District judge rules for Renville County in tax dispute with co-op

OLIVIA -- A district judge has ruled in favor of Renville County in an ongoing legal dispute with the Southern Minnesota Beet Sugar Cooperative.

District Judge Bruce Christopherson issued a decision Tuesday that upholds how Renville County has assessed the large sugar processing facility for property taxes payable in 2007 and 2008.

"A significant victory for Renville County and its citizens,'' is how Glen Jacobsen, assistant county attorney for Renville County, described the ruling.

The decision follows an 11-day trial conducted in April and May of 2008 and the subsequent submission of thousands of pages of supporting documents by the two sides.

The sugar processing facility pays property taxes exceeding $500,000 annually to Renville County, the Renville County West School District and township.

The company filed lawsuits asking the court to reduce its assessed value from its current level of more than $40 million to $8.5 million.

Had the judge approved the change, the county would have had to repay the company hundreds of thousands of dollars in property taxes. Jacobson said both the county and RCW School District would have also faced major budget decisions in how to manage the loss in revenues that would have resulted.

The judge's decision upholds the county's method of assessing the plant. Judge Christopherson set real estate value of the company's property at around $50 million.

The two sides have been in litigation over tax issues for five years, and some of the cases have gone to the state's high court without final resolution. The county's legal costs for the cases have topped the $1 million mark.

Cases for taxes payable in 2004 and 2005 have been remanded to the tax court and are essentially on hold, pending the outcome of this case. There is also a case filed for taxes payable in 2009 now pending in the courts.

Administrators at the cooperative were in meetings Tuesday afternoon when contacted about the lawsuit and said they would decline comment until they have a chance to review the ruling.

Jacobsen said the company has the option to appeal the decision. He said he hopes the decision would lead the two parties to come together and find resolution to the issues facing them.

The county had argued the property should be assessed largely on a method that takes into account the replacement value of the property. The company had argued that a method using comparable sales of other industrial properties should be used.

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

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