Court rules parish can tax caverns at higher rates

OPELOUSAS, La. (AP) — St. Landry Parish has won a court fight over taxing salt caverns at a higher rate, a ruling that could have implications for how caverns are taxed statewide.
Louisiana's Third Circuit Court of Appeal has ruled 3-2 that caverns excavated from a salt dome near Port Barre can be taxed as improved property and not land.
The Daily World reports ( higher taxes could reap an additional $500,000 a year in tax revenue for the St. Landry Parish School Board and several special tax districts.
Houston-based Spectra Energy, the owner, has been fighting parish Tax Assessor Rhyn Duplechain's efforts to raise taxes. Spectra has paid $1.3 million under protest over the last three years, an amount that could now be released.
"There are caverns like this throughout the state. This is a ruling not just for St. Landry Parish; it is for the entire state. This is a big ruling," Duplechain said.
Both Duplechain and Spectra Energy, which operates several huge natural gas storage domes in the eastern part of the parish, agree the caverns are worth $119.6 million.
But Duplechain has ruled they are improvements, taxed at 15 percent of assessed value.
Spectra has argued, and the Louisiana Tax Commission has agreed, they are merely features of the land such as a pond and are therefore taxed at 10 percent of assessed value. But Duplechain has now won rulings from a local and appeals court supporting his position. It's now up to Spectra to decide whether it wants to appeal, Duplechain said.
Cavern operators have also been fighting an effort in Assumption Parish to increase taxes. That parish, site of a collapsed cavern that caused the Bayou Corne sinkhole, claims companies weren't completely reporting all the caverns they had carved out.
Assumption Parish governments could see $14.4 million in tax revenue from 2013 and three prior years if their effort is successful, parish officials have told The Advocate. Six salt dome operators have sued to block Assumption Parish's efforts. The state Tax Commission is supposed to certify tax bills based on Assumption's assessments Tuesday.

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