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VOL. 36 | NO. 41 | Friday, October 12, 2012

Law boon to wealthy landowners, not just farmers

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BRENTWOOD (AP) - A law passed to reduce taxes for farmers is also being used to drastically cut tax bills by wealthy Tennessee residents who appear to do little farming.

The Commercial Appeal looked at records across the state and concluded the statute causes counties to forego an average of 5 percent of their tax base to greenbelt discounts. Those losses reach 20 percent in rural counties where the economy relies heavily on agriculture.

In Knoxville, two golf courses have lost exemptions they previously enjoyed under the 1976 statute. The Knoxville News Sentinel reported Cherokee Country Club and Holston Hills Country Club now owe more than $375,000 in back taxes.

The exemption has also been claimed by business owners and country music figures.

Roger Mick, a retired Hospital Corp. of America chief financial officer, gets a 64 percent tax break on his 70 acres of pasture land in the upscale Williamson County community of Brentwo od.

"I do think it's fair ... I pay what they bill me under the rules," said Mick, 66.

He said if not for the greenbelt break, he might be forced to subdivide his land for development.

The Commercial Appeal reported AutoZone founder J.R. "Pitt" Hyde has 135 mostly wooded acres in Shelby County on which he gets a 76 percent tax reduction under the law.

The Williamson County tax assessor has enrolled well-known country music stars as Billy Ray Cyrus and Naomi and Wynonna Judd in the greenbelt program. The newspaper said little in public records revealed much about the operations.

Cyrus gets a $29,000 tax break on his 467-acre spread near Thompson Station. His application said he intended to raise corn, horses and cattle.

A state report issued in 2009 recommended the state legislature limit the tax breaks to people who make their living by farming.

"It's being used by some people who clearly aren't farmers," said the report's author, Sta n Chervin, a senior research associate for the Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations.

The report has failed to gain traction in the General Assembly.

Enforcement is lacking. Assessors say they don't have enough staff to check on greenbelt participants to make sure they're really farming.

"We don't have any greenbelt police that go out and check that," said Donna B. Jones, assessor in East Tennessee's Union County, where 1,452 greenbelt parcels receive $678,767 in annual property tax subsidies.

"Fifteen-hundred dollars could be your garden," Jones said.