Thursday, September 30, 2010

Burkholder: No 'qualifying exemption' met by WMC

September 30, 2010
By Ann T. Burkholder
Tax questions regarding Valley Health and/or Winchester Medical Center have comprised a significant portion of my workload over the past lively nine months as Commissioner of the Revenue.

On Jan. 27, 2010, (City Attorney) Tony Williams, staff member Tina Butler, and I visited the Wellness Center in response to Valley Health's protest of the personal property tax and business license taxes of that site. At the time, Todd Way of Valley Health also asked about the questionnaires regarding the initial triennial review of tax-exempt properties, any need to apply for exemption of the new Diagnostic Center, and options for minimizing tax discussions regarding future construction and usage charges.

Consequently, Valley Health submitted an application for real estate tax exemption for the WMC campus in February 2010, which was scheduled for review at the March 23 City Council work session. Upon seeing the recommendation of the Assessor and Commissioner of the Revenue that Valley Health be denied a blanket exemption, Valley Health then withdrew its application. By filing and subsequently withdrawing this application, Valley Health clearly demonstrated its own awareness that no clear and irrefutable tax exemption exists for the WMC campus.

Since then, the city and Valley Health have gone back and forth on the matter, accelerated by recent meetings between the two parties. In a letter dated Sept. 2, James Daniel, attorney for Valley Health, wrote, "We understand that it is not in dispute that charitable, nonprofit, Virginia hospitals are exempt by classification from local real estate and personal property tax."

I do not agree with this statement; rather, whether Valley Health/Winchester Medical Center qualifies for exemption under that section of the Code of Virginia is specifically what is in question. It is the position of this office that the entity is subject to taxation unless City Council enacts a classification or designation otherwise.

It is likely that the City of Winchester considered the original Winchester Memorial Hospital, on the Stewart Street site, and the naissent Winchester Medical Center to be tax-exempt under liberal interpretation of the language of the 1902 Virginia Constitution. While post-1971 updates to the Code of Virginia include stricter guidelines, nothing has been found which clearly establishes WMC's entitlement to tax exemption under either the current or earlier version of the Constitution.

While correspondence from prior administrations suggests that the issue was examined, by all parties' accounts, the mission and business of today's Winchester Medical Center have substantially evolved from the hospital of yore. As a result, the commissioner has little basis on which to conclude that ownership, use of the property, and, in fact, the property itself, are the same as when the exemption initially came into use.

On Sept. 23, Valley Health officials held a press conference at the Wellness Center to discuss their 2009 Community Benefit Report. As stated by the Valley Health Board Chair, the point was to show what Valley Health gives to the community in lieu of paying taxes. Of the $71.3 million in benefits claimed, over 63 percent consists of bad debt expense and Medicare Reimbursement Shortfall, both of which more accurately fall under the cost of doing business.

Valley Health avers its not-for-profit status and charitable contributions undermine any claim of ineligibility for exemption, yet neither point is relevant to the matter at hand. Not-for-profit does not automatically equate to non-taxable. Moreover, while the City of Winchester is very appreciative of the generosity and community benefits provided by Valley Health, these are not a substitute for the benefits provided by tax revenue. Here in the city, we are blessed with many citizens and businesses that willingly donate goods, money, and services to designated charities, yet also pay their fair share of local taxes for the common good.

Assisted by the City Attorney, City Assessor, and my staff, I have reviewed applicable state and local code, local records of council action, numerous legal opinions and proceedings, and information provided by Valley Health. Considerations in evaluating tax-exempt status have included:

Categories of taxation, to include real estate, gross receipts business license and personal property taxes.

Usage of real property, including undeveloped land, property leased to outside entities, and property used for personal and professional services.

Variety of business units operating under Valley Health, including traditional hospital functions, as well as those in direct competition with fully taxable entities, such as the Wellness Center and physician office practices under Valley Physician Enterprise.

Fair and equitable distribution of local taxpaying responsibility, recognizing that Valley Health will continue to expand its vision, mission, and revenue stream.

The role of Valley Health as a valuable community partner.

At this point, my findings indicate the property and activities of the WMC Campus do not meet any qualifying exemption by classification or by designation and thus are taxable. Within the next two weeks, absent compelling evidence to the contrary, my office will begin preparing the current year real estate tax bills for the WMC Campus and will proceed with other applicable billings.

Ann T. Burkholder is commissioner of the revenue for the City of Winchester.

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