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Should ballpark be taxed?

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North Little Rock and Pulaski County officials expecting the new Dickey-Stephens ballpark in North Little Rock to be tax-exempt may have another think coming. In an Arkansas Supreme Court decision involving similar circumstances, the court held that the facility was subject to taxation.

Last week, the Arkansas Times quoted city and county officials as saying the ballpark would be exempt from taxation. That means it would produce no property tax revenue for schools and other public purposes. The officials said that generally, publicly owned property is not taxed. They cited Alltel Arena, War Memorial Stadium, Ray Winder Field and other publicly owned facilities in Pulaski County that are untaxed. Dickey-Stephens, which will open in 2007, will be owned by the city of North Little Rock.

The Supreme Court held in 1995 that the Walton Arts Center, owned by the city of Fayetteville and the University of Arkansas, was not exempt from taxation. The court said the center was not used exclusively for public purposes in that it rented space to private tenants and had a ticket policy that favored private contributors over members of the general public. That sounds like the same reasoning might apply to Dickey-Stephens. The park will rent space to the privately owned Arkansas Travelers baseball team. In another 1995 case, the court held that municipal airport property leased to private business operators was subject to taxation.

Carla Burnett, a Pulaski County lawyer who represents the assessor, said she’d need to study the decisions again, but she said that all tax-exemption cases are very fact-specific. In the airport case, a key fact was that private auto rental agencies located on airport property were competing with nearby agencies located on private property. Because the private property was taxed and the airport property wasn’t, the agencies on private property were placed at a competitive disadvantage.

In the Walton Arts Center case, the Center was sometimes closed to the public while private parties were held there. It’s unlikely that a Traveler baseball game at Dickey-Stephens would be closed to the public so that a private party could have the game all to itself.

In any event, Assessor Janet Troutman Ward repeated that Dickey-Stephens will be tax-exempt until a court orders otherwise. Getting sued is part of the assessor’s job, she said. “I get sued all the time over things that I won’t exempt.”

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