Corporation seeks tax rebate as reward for bankruptcy

Winn-Dixie, a Florida based grocery chain, filed bankruptcy in 2005. As part of their reorganization plan, they want back some of the property taxes they paid in Mississippi:

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.

What about a duty to the communities where they do business? These communities have already allocated and in some cases spent the money.

In some cases, the company is seeking to have the amount of back taxes owed reduced. In at least one case, they want a check from the county:

In Lauderdale County, Winn-Dixie was assessed $354,370. Under the revised plan, the county will owe $152,770.50.

Some of the counties say they weren't notified:

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...

The company threatened to sue another county tax collector when he tried to collect unpaid taxes:

Forrest County Tax Collector Delbert Dearman learned something was amiss after the county demanded payment for the grocer's 2005 tax bill.

"We got a letter back (in June) saying if we don't cease and desist, they will file suit against us."

And what does the company mean by "unjust or excessive" tax assessments? According to the first article:

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.

There's not much more information available on where or how the company thinks they have been assessed unjust or excessive property taxes. The company's investor relations bankruptcy information website doesn't seem to mention this at all.

But, it appears that Winn-Dixie has a long tradition of opposing taxes. One of their late founders created the Florida TaxWatch organization, and the company is still involved. This recent press release gives you an idea of what they think about property taxes in general:

Florida TaxWatch strongly commends Governor Bush for creating this committee in advance of next year's Taxation and Budget Reform Commission, which will be charged with examining Florida's tax system. This is part of a long overdue effort at fixing the inequities in our local property taxes. Citizens are being socked with ever increasing property taxes without knowing whom to blame.

The company listed assets of $2.2 billion and liabilities of $1.9 billion in their bankruptcy filing, so $1.4 million is a nickle-and-dime rounding error to them. But to a small county in Mississippi, tens or hundreds of thousands in lost property tax revenues is huge. It could be the difference in whether a new school gets built, a road gets fixed, or whether a county health department can afford flu vaccinations.

In stark contrast to bankruptcy protections afforded corporations, many individuals no longer have these same options available since Congress "reformed" personal bankruptcy laws. Working people, maybe even some who were forced into bankruptcy after being laid off by Winn-Dixie, will have to work off their debts. Corporations can blow off their creditors, their shareholders, and now apparently local governments in communities where they do business. But many individuals will work the rest of their lives as indentured servants.

Where is the justice in that? Apparently it's found on the bottom line of a 10-K annual report.