Friday, September 3, 1999

State taking property off local tax rolls bothers some lawmakers


Arkansas Game and Fish Commission Director Steve N. Wilson said Thursday that he's not sure how to protect local governments and school districts when private land is converted into state-owned property and is taken off local tax rolls.

At a meeting at the state Capitol, some lawmakers expressed concern about the commission's land acquisition policies and what that conversion of taxable land into untaxed public land does to local school funding.

"It bothers me, this continually pulling of property off the tax rolls," said Sen. Jon Fitch, D-Hindsville.

Wilson told members of the Game and Fish Commission Funding Study Committee, in describing how the commission is spending its money, that it bought about 8,000 acres in the last fiscal year. Much of that land was for a wildlife management area near Saratoga in southwest Arkansas.

The commission plans to buy 4,000 more acres this fiscal year, he said.

Arkansas comprises nearly 34 million acres. The Game and Fish Commission owns about 350,000 acres, Wilson said.

The purchase of the land near Saratoga, known as Grandview, prompted proposed constitutional amendment sponsored by Rep. Sandra Rodgers, D-Hope, during the last legislative session to require state agencies that buy private land to pay property taxes.

"I believe that if we use taxpayers' money to purchase property, that we always make some kind of payment in lieu of taxes," she said, noting that the federal government pays in-lieu-of fees to local governments when it buys private land.

Rodgers' proposal was not taken up during the session, but it will undergo a study before the next legislative session.

Game and Fish Commissioner Bill Bridgforth of Pine Bluff said that when the commission had an opportunity to buy property in southeast Arkansas, it informed all agencies that would be affected. He said that people there, without dissent, supported the purchase.

Fitch and others questioned whether the right question was asked. "I was just trying to make the point that when we hear that everyone is for it, that they understand everything that is taking place," Fitch said after the meeting. "The public needs to realize that anytime the state Game and Fish buys private lands and converts them into public lands, that they're taken off the tax rolls."

Fitch said after the meeting that he was not questioning the commission's purposes in buying land, but he said that some consideration needs to be given those local entities that depend on property taxes. "We're going to have to realize that when we take lands out of a particular county, that perhaps the state needs to compensate those people, their school districts," he said.

Rodgers said she thinks that when the commission buys land, compensation should be paid out of the commission's share of the 0.125 percent sales tax voters approved in 1996.

Wilson said that he understood the lawmakers' concerns but doesn't know what the solution is. He acknowledged that it may come down to the commission having to pay. But he said he wouldn't want to see that precedent set. Perhaps commission funds and state general revenue could be combined and used as compensation, he said.

Wilson said the economic benefits that accrue when it buys a piece of land cancel out "what little is lost from the school districts."

"The mechanism is not there to plow it back into the education system right now, so there are some opportunities to look for ways to do that," he said.


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