The Switzerland County Council opened the new year with a meeting discussing how to allocate current and future revenues with regard to a long running dispute with Belterra Casino Resort over its tax assessment.
Present at the meeting were council members Elizabeth Jones, Mike Bear, Lisa Fisher, Andy Haskell, and Rachel Schuler — and two new council members: Lance Collier and Todd Chase. Sheriff Brian Morton and County Auditor Carolyn Green were also present at the meeting.
The council opened the meeting with its official reorganization for the coming year.
Current Council President Jones asked for nominations for President for 2019, and Fisher nominated Jones for a second term, seconded by Bear, and the motion carried. Bear then nominated Fisher to serve as the council Vice President, seconded by Collier, and that motion also passed.
After reorganization, the council discussed the need for legal counsel.
Jones said that with the issues facing the council this year, including the Belterra lawsuit and a new auditor, she felt it was necessary to have legal counsel. She introduced Mike Cunningham from Dearborn County who then told about his professional background. Cunningham is a member of the firm Mullin, McMillan and McMillan, and is familiar with Switzerland County. He formerly worked in the State Auditor’s Office under now Lt. Governor Suzanne Crouch.
Jones made a motion to hire Cunningham, and Schuler seconded the motion for the purpose of discussion. The attorney would receive the same salary as the commissioner’s lawyer, which is approximately $10,000 per year. Schuler said that the council should advertise the job. President Jones then called for the vote. Fisher, Bear, and Jones voted for Cunningham as the council’s lawyer; while Haskell, Schuler, Chase, and Collier voted against hiring Cunningham. The motion failed with a vote of 4-3. It was suggested that the Council advertise for legal counsel and re-visit the issue.
— Since there are two new council members, Jones reviewed the critical situation with the lawsuit concerning the Property Assessment lawsuit between Belterra and the County. The assessor’s office will make the decisions concerning the settlement, but the council will be dramatically affected, as the council will pay part or all of the final settlement.
The dispute involves the assessed valuation placed on Belterra Casino Resort over a period of years. That assessed valuation impacts the amount of property taxes that the property pays to the county — which impacts the amount of tax money overall that the county has, and the amount of funding that could be available to a variety of entities through revenue sharing.
The matter has been in dispute since 2004. At that time, Belterra disputed its assessment for the years of 2004 and 2007, but agreed to drop its issue without asking the county to pay back any overage.
Now, Belterra is disputing the assessments from 2009 to 2014; and the matter is currently in litigation to determine if the assessment was too high, and if so, how the county might pay back those funds.
Initially there was quite a gap between what the county values the property at and where Belterra feels the value lies. That gap has shrunk over the period of litigation, with each side interpreting the language in different ways and coming to different conclusions.
If the courts rule in Belterra’s favor, then the county will be faced with returning those excess funds — and that could mean different entities within the county tax structure —primarily the school corporation — would have to return excess funds to the county, so they could in turn be returned to Belterra.
Jones said that she felt the council should help the school corporation with their portion of the tax repayment. School Superintendent Rod Hite, stated that the School Endowment would be unable to pay toward the school’s portion. The possible repayment of $837,000 to Belterra would be devastating to the operation of the schools. Fisher reminded the council that to absorb that amount of money, we would need to take a hard look at other expenses.
The Fire Chiefs Association has received $300,000 yearly in Belterra gaming funds since 2016. The organization subtracts five-percent for projects, insurance and training; and then distributes the remainder to the local fire departments. The Patriot Fire Department has been allocated 11.3-percent (approximately $32,000 of the distribution) for the last several years.
Since the Patriot Fire Department is no longer in operation and has answered no calls in the last two years, there was discussion that the council should no longer fund a non-functioning fire department. The Posey Township Fire Department is under a financial contract with the Town of Patriot to provide services.
According to a report from the Fire Chiefs Association treasurer Glenn Scott, the association has $278,737 in savings and checking. There is a total of $54,432.38 held from past installments for Patriot. The funds were being held in the event the status of the Patriot Fire Department changed.
Fisher made a motion to subtract $32,000 (approximately 11.3-percent) from the Fire Chiefs allotment so that funds could be used for other things and Bear seconded the motion. According to the stated motion no other fire departments — not Jeff-Craig, East Enterprise, Florence, Posey VFD, or Moorefield would receive a decrease in funding. Only the funds normally directed toward the Patriot Fire Department would be reduced. The motion carried 5-2.
Fisher made the motion to leave the Belterra distributions the same as preceding years (2016-2018) except for the reduction to the defunct Patriot Fire Department. Haskell seconded the motion, which passed unanimously.
— Fisher made a motion to accept the presented board appointments, and Bear seconded the motion, which passed unanimously.
Those appointments include:
• Economic Development: Tom Conroy.
• ABC: Bernie Gaudin.
• Redevelopment Committee: Joey Rider and Bernie Gaudin.
• SISWD: Lance Collier.
• SIRPC: Andy Haskell.
• EMA: Lisa Fisher.
— The YMCA agreement was signed by the commissioners. The motion was made by Fisher and seconded by Bear to concur with the commissioners. The motion carried.