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SunOpta tax request 'morally offensive,' county official says

SunOpta is asking a tax court to lower its property valuation and tax bill on two of its location in Alexandria, including the location in Alexandria's Industrial Park. The request was discussed at Tuesday’s Douglas County Board of Commissioner’s meeting. (Celeste Edenloff | Echo Press)

After receiving 10 years of tax breaks through a job creation program, SunOpta is asking a tax court to lower its property valuation and tax bill, a move Douglas County Assessor Keith Albertsen called "morally offensive."

SunOpta, a food processing company, and retailer Mills Fleet Farm have filed petitions seeking lower property assessments for property taxes to be paid in 2017. The requests were discussed at Tuesday's Douglas County Board of Commissioner's meeting.

An email from Assistant Douglas County Attorney Michelle Clark said SunOpta was in the Job Opportunities Building Zones, or JobZ program, for 10 years, ending in 2016.

From 2006 through 2016, the property taxes for SunOpta would have been $678,403, according to Clark.

However, through the JobZ tax benefit program, SunOpta only paid property taxes of $347,652 — a savings to SunOpta of $330,751, or nearly 50 percent.

For its taxes payable this year, SunOpta no longer receives the tax benefit of that program.

"They are now expected to pay their full tax assessments like all other businesses not in the JobZ program," Clark said in her email.

SunOpta, which has three locations in Alexandria, has filed petitions for lower assessments on two of its properties - a request that upset Albertsen.

"They just came off a 10-year JobZ deferment where they averaged a $33,000 per year reduction in property taxes that everybody else had to pick up. It is morally offensive to have them file a petition after receiving that kind of reduction," Albertsen said.

The petition for SunOpta alleges that property was unfairly and unequally assessed and that the classification is incorrect and/or it has been assessed at more than its actual market value.

Clark said SunOpta's petition asked the court for the following:

• To determine the validity of the claims made.

• Reduce the estimated market value.

• Determine that the real estate taxes due and payable in 2017 be reduced in accordance with a reduced estimated market value.

• That the overpayment be refunded with interest.

• That the petitioner be able to recover its costs and disbursements.

Ronald Mott, director of tax at SunOpta's corporate office, said in an email to the newspaper, "We do not really have a comment. This is just a small disagreement of the assessed value of the property."

SunOpta has about 1,800 employees worldwide, according to its website.

Mills Fleet Farm

Albertsen told commissioners that Mills Fleet Farm has once again filed a tax court petition for taxes assessed in 2016 and payable in 2017.

The owners of Mills Fleet Farm filed a petition for its Alexandria location including the main store, car wash, convenience store/gas station and warehouse. This is the second year in a row, Albertsen said, that a petition has been filed on these parcels, but there have been similar requests in previous years.

The county has hired Marc Manderscheid of the Briggs and Morgan law firm out of the Twin Cities to handle the case. Manderscheid specializes in real estate litigation, including valuation of commercial property for property tax purposes.

Celeste Edenloff

Celeste is a reporter for the Alexandria Echo Press and has lived in the Alexandria Lakes Area since 1997. She first worked for the Echo Press as a reporter from 1999 to 2011, and returned in June 2016 to report on the community she calls home. She enjoys running and has participated in nearly 200 races with her husband, Al, covering the 5K, 10K, 10-mile and half-marathon distances.

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