Learning Collaborative wins Dummerston tax battle


DUMMERSTON -- A judge has declared Southeast Vermont Learning Collaborative exempt from paying property taxes, capping a long-running dispute with the town of Dummerston.

The decision, issued by Judge Katherine Hayes in Windham Superior Court Civil Division, validates the Learning Collaborative's legal fight to win tax-free status for its headquarters on Route 5.

It also wipes out more than $19,000 in delinquent taxes and associated penalties and interest that the town had claimed the collaborative owed for two tax years.

"We thought we were in a good position to begin with, and we were taken aback by the (Dummerston) listers' decision to not grant us the tax exemption," Casey Murrow, the Learning Collaborative's executive director, said Tuesday. "We really regret that we had to go the way of the Superior Court."

Dummerston officials could appeal the decision, but they were not in a position Tuesday to predict whether that will happen.

"Of course, I'm disappointed. We thought we had a strong case," Selectboard Chairman Zeke Goodband said. "We've been waiting for this decision for a long time. Now, we have to figure out what it means for the town."

The Learning Collaborative specializes in providing professional-development training to teachers. Murrow said the organization's mission has expanded in the last year or so, with the collaborative now serving 20 supervisory unions in four counties.

While there has been much disagreement between the Learning Collaborative and the town, Hayes wrote that there are several undisputed facts in the tax case. That includes the collaborative's status as a "nonprofit, public-benefit corporation granted incorporation as such by the Vermont Secretary of State."

"Plaintiff also enjoys charitable tax-exempt status as approved by the Internal Revenue Service pursuant to section 501(c)3 of the IRS code," the judge wrote. "Plantiff's primary mission is to provide educational programs for teachers and members of the public to support and improve the quality of teaching in Vermont schools."

The judge noted the importance of such facilities, given that all teachers in Vermont "are required to attend professional development courses to maintain their licenses."

Additionally, Hayes wrote that the Learning Collaborative "also runs a public lecture series and opens up its property for meetings of teachers and administrators."

From 2002 until 2011, the Learning Collaborative rented the building -- which formerly housed a library -- from the state of Vermont. But the collaborative bought the structure on Nov. 30, 2011, and requested tax exemption from the town less than four months later.

In June 2012, according to court papers, the town issued a notice that the Learning Collaborative property had been appraised for taxation at $458,600. The collaborative's request for tax exemption was denied in July 2012 and again in March 2013.

At one point, it had appeared that Dummerston Selectboard had worked out a compromise under which the Learning Collaborative annually would pay the town about a third of the building's total tax bill. But the state nullified that deal, saying it had not followed proper channels.

In April 2013, the Learning Collaborative filed suit against the town. The organization "asserts that it provides a service that the state is legally obligated to provide and that this establishes that it is entitled to exemption from real property taxation under the so-called government function test," according to court papers.

The Learning Collaborative also said its activities met a "public use" test for tax exemption.

On the other hand, town officials argued that the collaborative's "core business is aimed only at a small, narrowly defined group, rather than at the general public." Officials cited cases -- including one from Manchester involving the American Museum of Fly Fishing Inc. -- to buttress their argument.

Hayes, in a ruling issued Monday, sided with the Learning Collaborative.

"Plaintiff has demonstrated sufficiently that, under the legal standard applicable, it performs an essential government function," the judge wrote.

"Furthermore, the court concludes that even if plaintiff were not providing what is essentially a governmental function, plaintiff would qualify for the tax exemption under the broader allowance for ‘public use,'" Hayes added.

The judge's final conclusion was clear: "Therefore, as the undisputed facts demonstrate that the plaintiff qualifies for property tax exemption ... judgment must be entered for the plaintiff."

Along with the question of whether the town will appeal the court ruling, it also is unclear whether the Learning Collaborative might still offer some payment to the town in lieu of taxes.

Murrow said "there has been discussion about proceeding with that (payment) in some form," but he emphasized that the organization's board has not decided on the matter.

Mike Faher can be reached at mfaher@reformer.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.


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