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Lawmaker accuses Ameren of hurting schools with assessment complaints

Lawmaker accuses Ameren of hurting schools with assessment complaints

April 18th, 2014 in News

A state lawmaker thinks Ameren Missouri's complaint about assessed property values will hurt schools and county governments.

"If this goes through as is, $1.64 million will be out of the hands of local school districts," said Rep. Ed Schieffer, a Troy Democrat who wants to be the next state senator for Callaway County.

Ameren officials think the assessors in 16 counties - including Cole, Callaway and Moniteau counties - over-assessed the value of the company's natural gas systems. The utility has taken its concerns to the State Tax Commission, as the law requires.

The issue is depreciation - how much less the natural gas equipment is worth this year than last because it's in constant use and older.

The counties charged Ameren an amount it considered "inconsistent with what we viewed as the State Tax Commission's guidance" for depreciating the natural gas system's value, Ameren Missouri Vice President Warren Wood told the News Tribune on Thursday afternoon.

"We paid them the higher amount, despite the dispute," he said. "Our only option is to go to the State Tax Commission for clarity on who's doing it right."

If Ameren loses its appeals, Wood said, the eventual end result will be "higher taxes resulting in higher rates for our customers."

Tax Commission Chairman Bruce Davis said a hearing officer has been assigned the Ameren cases.

Ameren provides natural gas services in 25 eastern Missouri counties, and there are disputes in 16 of them.

Davis said it's too early in the schedule to determine when a hearing would be held on the dispute - or whether the commission will hear one dispute as a test case, or hear all 16 disputes at the same time.

Schieffer provided numbers showing the different values in those disputes - Wood said he had not verified that Schieffer's numbers were the correct ones.

Based on Schieffer's numbers, Ameren said it was over-assessed by $10,481,238 in Cole County, $871,903 in Callaway County and $659,138 in Moniteau County.

"While every taxpayer has a right to contest his or her taxes and every business has a right to contest his or her taxes, Ameren's actions - and their prosecution of this appeal - is wholly inequitable," Schieffer said. "Given the fact that every penny of Ameren's full tax bills have already been paid by their consumers - people like you and I - they have the tax money, already.

"Should Ameren win this appeal now pending before the State Tax Commission, they will be able to retain every dollar that has been paid to them by the consumers, then taken away from our schools and other county government entities."

Schieffer acknowledged Ameren's current natural gas rates include a charge for property taxes that were set in 2010.

"Tax rates have gone up since then, so we are paying more out in taxes than we are recovering from customers," Wood said. "We'll never get it (all, because) they don't change the taxes in our rates between rate cases."

Wood said Ameren's battle with the 16 county assessors isn't unique.

He noted St. Louis-based Laclede Gas and other regulated natural gas providers are having similar disputes in parts of the state.

Schieffer said he's not attacking Ameren's overall operations.

"In all fairness to Ameren, I'm not here to hurt any project they're working on," he explained. "I totally believe Ameren's done a good job overall of providing electricity and natural gas to the consumer.

"The issue I have is withholding the tax on this particular problem."

Wood said no taxes have been withheld - unless a county government placed the money in escrow while the dispute is carried to the commission.

"We clearly don't want to leave schools without their proper funding," he said. "Ameren Missouri has paid 100 percent of its property taxes in each county based on what they said we owed them.: