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Renville Co. wins latest round in court battle with co-op

The exterior of the Southern Minnesota Beet Sugar Co-operative in Renville is pictured in this undated photo. Tribune photo

ST. PAUL -- The Minnesota Court of Appeals has ruled in favor of Renville County in the latest appeal by the Southern Minnesota Beet Sugar Cooperative involving its litigation over how the company's property is taxed.

In an unpublished opinion filed Tuesday, the Court of Appeals affirmed on all counts a ruling by District Court Judge Bruce Christopherson upholding how the county assessed and taxed the sugar cooperative's property for taxes payable in 2007 and 2008.

Christopherson had issued his ruling in favor of the county in July 2009 following an 11-day trial.

The cooperative had appealed on a number of issues, ranging from the methods for determining property values to whether certain structures should be considered taxable property. The appeals court affirmed the district court rulings in favor of the county on every issue raised in the appeal.

It also upheld the district judge's discretionary order that the sugar company pay the county $82,363 for its expert-witness costs involved in the 2009 trial case.

The county is very pleased by the latest ruling and hopes it will help move the two parties to a resolution, according to Glen Jacobsen, assistant county attorney. He said the two sides had previously agreed to meet at the end of October to see if they could reach an out-of-court resolution to the litigation.

By issuing its ruling as an unpublished opinion, the Court of Appeals is signaling that this ruling applies to the specifics of this case alone. Jacobsen said that makes it less likely that the state Supreme Court would hear an appeal should one be filed.

In response to a request for a comment on the decision, Kelvin Thompsen, president and CEO of the Southern Minnesota Beet Sugar Cooperative, stated: "SMBSC continues to be the largest taxpayer in Renville County and our goal is that our facility is taxed fairly so that our shareholders are not placed at an economic disadvantage by doing business in Renville County. SMBSC is reviewing the order of the court with legal counsel and over the next few weeks we will determine the course of action that best meets the interests of our shareholders.''

In its initial lawsuit, the cooperative sought to reduce the assessed value of its property to $8.5 million, and hence the amount of property taxes it must pay. The 2006 and 2007 assessments upheld by the Court of Appeals ruling maintained the assessed value of the sugar company's property in 2006 and 2007 at $40,752,600 and $40,761,200, respectively.

The sugar cooperative makes annual payments to the county, Renville County West School District and township totaling more than $500,000.

The district court case involving taxes payable in 2007 and 2008 is among a series of civil lawsuits that the cooperative has filed against the county. The other cases remain active in the respective courts.

There are separate cases before Minnesota Tax Court Justices George Perez (taxes payable 2004 and 2005) and Kathleen Sandberg (payable 2006). There are also cases filed in district court for taxes payable in 2009 and 2010 pending before District Judge Paul Nelson.

Tom Cherveny

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

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