George revives Evergreen aid bill
A bill designed to spare Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum from local property taxes died in committee last week, but was revived by state Sen. Larry George in a Thursday afternoon bill-stuffing maneuver. George, a Sherwood Republican, amended an unrelated bill to include a stripped-down version of the Evergreen aid measure.
In its latest incarnation, the bill is more targeted and includes a sunset provision, according to his mother, Yamhill County Commissioner Kathy George.
The original bill was introduced by State Rep. Jim Weidner, a Yamhill Republican whose district encompasses most of Yamhill County, at the request of former legislator Kevin Mannix. A lawyer, Mannix is also representing Evergreen in a parallel effort seeking relief through the Oregon Tax Court.
Kathy George urged colleague Allen Springer to support the cause Thursday, and he agreed. The third commissioner, Mary Stern, missed the meeting due to a death in the family.
George drafted a letter saying financial challenges faced by the museum’s parent company, which filed for bankruptcy in December, justifies the kind of tax relief the museum is seeking. It will be forwarded to the Legislature.
The original bill, while prompted by Evergreen’s tax challenge, would have applied to museums throughout the state. The amended bill would exempt Evergreen from about $400,000 a year in property taxes, currently under challenge in Tax Court, without affecting other Oregon museum operations.
The underlying issue is to what degree Evergreen’s operations are truly non-profit, and thus legally exempt.
Assessor Scott Maytubby says 95 percent for its aviation and space museums and its IMAX theater, excluding only their gift shop and cafeteria elements, but only 5 percent for its water park, which he maintains is primary commercial in nature.
Evergreen contends its entire operation should be fully exempt. It says the revenue-generating portions simply serve to support the rest.
The museum has been filing annual appeals and getting rejections for several years. This year, it is appealing to the Oregon Tax Court, and holding up payments in the meantime.
Evergreen is being represented by Mannix, a former legislator and Republican gubernatorial candidate. The state and county are being represented by the Oregon Department of Justice.
Evergreen is proceeding on two tracks in court. It is in the early stages of an appeal on its Waves & Wings Waterpark and the late stages of an appeal on the rest of its Highway 18 museum complex.
The state Tax Court’s Magistrate Division rejected the museum’s initial challenge with regard to the main part of the complex. The museum is now appealing to the court’s Regular Division, which has the final say, but a decision is not expected for several months.
Legislative action would pre-empt the courts, making the judicial appeals moot.
“If we don’t do something quickly, we will lose this facility,” George said. “It’s a given.”
Asked afterward about the basis for that assessment, she cited dire predictions in local news stories and the parent company’s spectacular collapse.
In the letter, which Springer joined in signing, George said, “A closed facility will not be paying any taxes and will be a multimillion loss to the region and the state. Because the parent company is in the process of bankruptcy, we are supportive of a temporary legislative solution that will give the parties time to evaluate the future and negotiate for a reasonable outcome.”
Springer justified his support by saying, “In order to benefit a community at times, especially in these difficult times, we have to have long-range vision and flexibility in order to customize some of the things that have a big impact on the community. Sometimes that means walking away from some immediate benefit to our tax rolls and looking at the bigger picture and benefit it has toward the community. Evergreen is unique to our area and broad in its impact.”
Springer argued for addressing the issue aggressively, saying, “It would be an absolute travesty to let anything happen to that. We need to protect it with all we’ve got.”
Maytubby, who is independently elected, thus not subject to direction from the commissioners, responded, “It’s always been the position of the assessor’s office to recognize the benefits those facilities bring to the county.”
He said, “We’ve done so from the very beginning. We’ve always granted a high percentage of exemption on the property and feel it’s a great asset to Yamhill County.”
He said he remains reluctant to discuss specifics while the case remains in litigation, but did cite one area of particular concern — roughly 40,000-square-feet of office space devoted to the for-profit parent company prior to its demise.
Springer said that wasn’t a big issue for him, particularly when the company that was using it no longer exists, and clearly wasn’t turning a profit anyway.
“You have to make a profit, otherwise you’re really a nonprofit, whether you want to be one or not,” he said. “This is where we need to push the envelope.
“Could the water park be argued both directions adequately? Yes. But this is where I see the bigger vision of the thing.”
Musuem Director Larry Wood couldn’t be reached for response, but Melissa Grace, the museum’s marketing director, said the museum stands by its December declation that it is “financially viable and has no plans to close.”
Meanwhile, the relationship between the for-profit Evergreen International Aviation and its nonprofit Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum progeny, perched on opposite sides of Highway18, remains under formal investigation by the state Department of Justice.
The underlying issue is whether the operations are truly separate, as required by law. Any co-mingling of funds would constitute a violation.
DOJ opened the probe in November 2012. So far, it has refused to discuss its progress or findings.
Michael Kron, spokesman for the Department of Justice, confirmed Thursday the investigation remains active. Kron said he was not able to provide any update on its status or project any possible timing for its completion.