Tour home group heads for tax fight with county

Published 11:31 am Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Vicksburg tour home operators geared up Tuesday for what might become a heated battle over property taxes with Vicksburg and Warren County.

Members of the newly formed Historic Properties of Vicksburg groups vowed at its initial meeting to fight appraisal methods on the city’s stately antebellum homes they said were essentially bad for tourism.

“I can’t justify paying $12,500 a year for four guest rooms, two suites and an apartment,” chairman Harry Sharp said during the session, held in the library of Duff Green Mansion, which Sharp renovated in the late 1980s. “It makes no sense.”

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The group is a re-launch of the Vicksburg Bed & Breakfast Association, with an apparent focus on public policy issues on the niche industry. Gone, at least for now, is the annual Tapestry event, after the old group reported low sales and attendance this past spring. Dues are $20 and open to properties either on the National Register of Historic Places, the list of Mississippi Landmark sites, or, in a looser definition, contributes to the city’s aesthetics.

Sharp and others criticized the way properties are appraised for tax purposes. Those indexes are set forth by the Mississippi Department of Revenue and used as a guide by the state’s 82 counties. Those indexes are plugged into formulas used to calculate property taxes. A lower mathematical baseline had been used in Warren County to do that calculation until 2012 despite deadlines from MDOR five years earlier for the Tax Assessor’s Office to use a higher one, so as to align with the southern half of the state’s counties with sufficient new construction. Higher indexes mean higher values when counties change millage rates accordingly.

“It’s not the assessor, it’s the appraisers,” Sharp said. Contract appraisers were hired in 2012 by then-incoming Tax Assessor Angela Brown after years of in-house appraisal staff. Louisville, Miss.-based appraiser Wes Kight has the contract for real property, while Brandon-based Statewide Appraisal Services handles personal property.

Others members of the tour home group questioned why appraisers don’t review their respective business ledgers when calculating property taxes to take the economy into account.

“They’ve never asked about it,” said Macy Whitney, co-owner of The Corners Bed & Breakfast and vice-chair of the group.

Doug Cousineau, owner of Baer House, on Grove Street, and Elvin McFerrin, who owns the McNutt House farther west on First East from Duff Green, favored a lower tax method for the industry.

“My second-largest expense is taxes,” McFerrin said.

The tour home group plans a united front at a public hearing Monday to scrap and rewrite Warren County’s policy on tax abatements. Historic home operators have based frustration with recent go-aheads for abatements on two car dealerships along Interstate 20, outside the downtown-centered historic preservation district. The hearing is set for 10 a.m. in supervisors’ third-floor meeting room. No decision had been made as of Tuesday whether it would be moved to the circuit courtroom to accommodate more people.

Betty Jackson, longtime operator of Cherry Street Cottages Bed & Breakfast/Shlenker House, and Carolyn Stephenson, owner of Annabelle Bed & Breakfast, urged attendance. Jackson, a former county supervisor, told the group “now is the time” for them to check property values for 2014. Rolls are available for viewing in the chancery clerk’s office through Aug. 1. The county board meets Aug. 4 to hear formal objections.

Sharp said personal meetings with Mayor George Flaggs Jr. has produced talk the city will lobby the Legislature to craft a new tax incentive for Vicksburg. Property tax abatement programs in Mississippi differ for cities and counties. Cities may exempt all but school taxes for seven years on properties in central business districts, historic preservation districts, business improvement districts, urban renewal districts, and historic landmarks.

Counties, including Warren, write their own programs with unique sets of criteria. Warren’s, for example, doesn’t include multifamily structures and says a property must have been demolished first, then redeveloped at a minimum cost of $300,000.