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Supreme Court rules against West Platte

by Ivan Foley
Landmark editor

A ruling by the Missouri Supreme Court this week on a case that originated in Platte County means victory for Kansas City Power & Light and Platte County Assessor Lisa Pope in legal action that had been brought by the West Platte School District.

The case pitted the county assessor against West Platte over a valuation of the Iatan power plant. It made it to the Supreme Court level after attorneys for the assessor and KCP&L filed to block a decision by Circuit Judge Gerald McBeth to reject their motions to dismiss the case.

Big names in the legal field were a part of the case. KCP&L was represented by Todd Graves--former Platte County Prosecutor and U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Missouri. Former Missouri Supreme Court Judge Chip Robertson represented the school district and two Platte County residents in the case.

According to court documents, in 2006 KCP&L took Iatan I, which is located north of Weston, offline for construction and tried to bring it back online in the fall of 2008. But a malfunction in an environmental retrofit installed in the plant caused the company to delay the reactivation for six months.

In the meantime, Iatan II was under construction. Under state law, KCP&L is required to report the value of its property to Pope for her assessment. Pope assessed the value of the construction projects while the plants were off-line and assessed them at 50 percent of the total expenditures for construction. Local taxes were then based on this amount.

West Platte and two taxpayers– school board members Donald Wilson and John Collier--filed the lawsuit against Pope and KCP&L, alleging that the district had lost tax revenues from Pope’s valuation and that she did not perform her duty as an elected official to properly assess the property.

The Supreme Court disagreed. In its written ruling, the court says: “Because the assessor in this case did not violate any definite, ministerial duty, the plaintiffs lack standing for purposes of mandamus. The plaintiffs have no further available legal remedy, and KCPL and the assessor’s motions to dismiss should have been granted.”

The court’s ruling then adds:

“The plaintiffs are not without remedy, however. Elected officials such as county assessors are accountable to the voters, who may use the remedy of election if dissatisfied with the assessor’s exercise of discretion.”

Pope’s attorney, John Shank of Kansas City, had written in his motion to the court that school districts and taxpayers have no standing when trying to obtain tax relief.

In essence, the opinion of Shank and Graves, which was backed up by the court’s ruling, is that a person (or public body) can’t challenge the assessment of another person’s property.

If so, Shank wrote in his motion, “The taxing authority would be beset with litigation at every turn.”

Graves pointed out that the assessor had “total discretion” in her assessment, but that the local board of equalization and the Missouri State Tax Commission can oversee assessments to ensure that the assessments are appropriate.