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Winn-Dixie wants taxes rolled back; six Miss. counties file protests

Six Mississippi counties are protesting efforts by Winn-Dixie Stores Inc. to get back more than $1.4 million it paid in property taxes.

Winn-Dixie is seeking to have assessments made in 2004 and 2005 rolled back as part of its reorganization plan.

“The company has a duty to its bankruptcy creditors to avoid paying unjust or excessive tax assessments,” company spokeswoman Robin Miller said in an e-mail to The Clarion-Ledger newspaper of Jackson.

The counties affected are Madison, Hinds, Bolivar, Forrest, George, Hancock, Harrison, Jones, Lamar, Lincoln, Lauderdale, Lowndes, Monroe, Pearl River, Pike, Pontotoc, Rankin, Scott, Simpson, Warren, Copiah, Yazoo, Marion, Jackson and Calhoun.

Madison, Warren, Marion, Forrest, Copiah and Yazoo counties filed protests by a July 31 deadline. Those protests will be taken up when the company’s overall reorganization plan is presented before a bankruptcy judge in Florida on Oct. 13.

Other counties said they would protested, too, had they been notified. Many counties now are asking for help from the state attorney general’s office.

In Hinds County, the rollback could mean repaying Winn-Dixie $358,612 at a time when the city and the city school system are all seeking tax increases. Winn-Dixie still owes Hinds County $621,025 in taxes for 2004 and 2005. Under this ruling, however, the company will be liable for less than 45 percent of that amount, or $262,413.

“We need every penny we can get,” said Hinds County Tax Collector Eddie Fair, noting the county’s tax base is eroding as people move to neighboring counties.

Winn-Dixie, based in Jacksonville, Fla., filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in February 2005. The company, which closed 29 of its 45 stores in Mississippi, hopes to emerge from bankruptcy in October.

Winn-Dixie operated seven stores in Rankin County, where it paid $161,515 in taxes for the contested years. Under the plan now before U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Jerry Funk, the revised assessment totals $69,932 for those two years.

Rankin County Tax Collector Judy Fortenberry said her office would have protested the reduction but, like some counties, she said Rankin County never got notice.

Fortenberry, who has turned all the paperwork over to a private attorney who specializes in bankruptcy, said if the county is ordered to roll back assessments, she has no idea how that will be carried out, noting it’s just too early to know.

In an e-mail statement, Jan Schaefer, a spokeswoman for the attorney general’s office said, “We are monitoring the objections filed by the counties and will assist where we can be of service.”

In Lauderdale County, Winn-Dixie was assessed $354,370. Under the revised plan, the county will owe $152,770.50. Lauderdale County officials also said they were not notified by the grocer.

“They’ve got to know they’ve got stores in Lauderdale County,” said Rick Barry, attorney for the board of supervisors. “If you’ve got objections, you need to send them to the people involved.”

If a county can prove it failed to receive notice, then “there could be a problem with the order,” said attorney Don McGraw, who is representing the Madison County Tax Collector’s office.

Having to find funds to repay money already spent by the counties, municipalities and school districts could have a ripple effect, said Madison County Tax Collector Kay Pace, who says she’s relieved the county’s tax assessment will stand.

“At least we’ve got a toe-hold in there,” said Pace, wondering aloud if Winn-Dixie will appeal Funk’s exceptions.

Miller said it is difficult for a company with multiple properties in several states to challenge tax assessments because of the short deadlines.

“Winn-Dixie seeks merely to provide the bankruptcy court with evidence of the actual just valuation of its assets, the same standard applicable to all state taxpayers, and obtain adjustments of those assets, which may have been overvalued using the state’s streamlined procedures,” Miller said.