A business coalition has written Utah's 29 counties to warn them that its tax protests are still alive despite the Legislature's settlement of the AMAX property-tax dispute.
Emery County officials in particular are upset with the letter from Salt Lake attorney Mark Buchi, who represents the group of companies whose properties are assessed by the state.Emery officials said they thought the coalition agreed to drop tax-protest lawsuits in exchange for the settlement crafted by the 1991 Legislature.
If won by the coalition, lawsuits could force financially strapped counties to return disputed taxes from the late 1980s. That threat is compounded by county officials' bitterness over what they perceive as a lack of voice in settlement discussions.
"It seems like the lawyers for the state-assessed companies have had more influence with them (the legislators) than the people they were elected to represent," said Emery County Commission Chairwoman Dixie Thompson.
Under terms of the legislative settlement, Emery officials say they either have to raise property taxes for homeowners and small businesses or cut county services.
The settlement stems from a Utah Supreme Court ruling favoring AMAX Magnesium Corp. The court found unconstitutional the property-tax formula that gave a 20 percent discount to county-assessed properties - particularly residential property.
AMAX and other state-assessed companies had filed official protests over taxes they paid under old formulas.
Legislators in late February agreed that cities, towns and other taxing districts must adjust property-tax rates to meet the high court's constitutional concerns.
Emery County Attorney Scott Johansen said it was "a little bit disconcerting" to receive the coalition's letter because he thought the state-assessed companies would withdraw their tax-payment protests in exchange for the settlement.
But Buchi says the letter was sent to the counties only to protect the interests of the various companies while the formal settlement is being worked out. In addition, he said, the companies' interests must also be protected while parties wait for an additional state Supreme Court ruling on an unrelated property-tax dispute.
The counties are not facing a new lawsuit, Buchi said.
"This is just a protective appeal," he said. "We intend to . . . stipulate with the respective county attorneys to put the lawsuits into the icebox."