- BY PAUL HAMPEL • > 314-727-6234 Jun 27, 2012
LAYTON • For the second straight year, St. Louis County Assessor Jake Zimmerman has more than doubled the appraised value and tax liability of Harrah’s Maryland Heights Casino.
While Zimmerman was rebuffed in his effort last year, he said he hoped that the recent sale of the casino would bolster his new move.
Zimmerman announced Tuesday that he was raising the personal property value of the casino to about $439 million from $152 million. On top of the casino’s real estate value of about $63 million, the move brings the total appraised value of the business to about $502 million.
Such an move would increase the casino’s annual property taxes to $14.3 million, from $6.2 million last year.
Zimmerman cited the pending sale of the casino to Penn National Gaming for $610 million as justification for the increase.
“The sale price of the casino tells us that $500 million is an accurate description of the personal property value of that business,” he said.
While real estate values are reappraised every odd-numbered year, personal property is reappraised annually.
Zimmerman reappraised the value of the casino last year to $502 million. But the casino won an appeal of the valuation before the county’s Board of Equalization. It reduced the value to $215 million.
Zimmerman and the board verbally sparred over the issue, with the assessor asserting that the board members acted incompetently.
In defending its decision, the board asserted that Zimmerman had failed to provide enough information to support his valuations.
Also last year, Zimmerman had reappraised the value of the county’s other gambling venue, River City Casino in Lemay, to $284 million from the 2010 value of about $270 million.
The Board of Equalization initially cut that value to $164 million. The board later reversed itself and set a value on River City of $271 million; Zimmerman said Tuesday that he considered that value to be fairly accurate.
Zimmerman said that the recent sale of Harrah’s vindicated his 2011 appraisal.
“The latest sales price tells us that the board’s decision to reduce the value was, in hindsight, probably not correct,” he said. Not so fast, said Leslie Broadnax, chairwoman of the Equalization Board.
Harrah’s has the right to appeal the county’s new appraised value to the board.
The casino could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
Asked if he expected another confrontation with the board, Zimmerman said, “We hope that the casino’s new owners will do the right thing and pay their fair share.”
He later added, in a statement: “When big entities like Harrah’s get special breaks, the rest of us wind up paying more.”
In defending his decision, Zimmerman noted that the state classifies casinos as “barges.”
“The law pretends that the casinos are boats, so as long as we’re pretending that they’re boats, let’s tax them like boats — as personal property,” he said. “And really, the value at issue here is all on the personal property side, the value of everything on those barges.”
If the values stand, a major beneficiary will be the Pattonville School District. It would collect an extra $4.3 million this year in casino tax revenue.
Last year, after the Equalization Board cut Harrah’s appraised value, the district raised its tax rate by 35 cents, to $4.42 per $100 of assessed valuation.
The district’s superintendent, Michael Fulton, said Tuesday that it was too soon to say how the district would react to a tax windfall from the casino.
“I don’t know that we would necessarily return the money to the taxpayers,” Fulton said on Tuesday. “We’d have to see how much we actually get and address our budget issues.”
Harrah’s casino, which opened on the Missouri River in 1997, and Ameristar Casino in St. Charles are neck and neck as the area’s top-grossing casinos.
Gamblers spent $268.4 million at Harrah’s last year, according to the Missouri Gaming Commission, down 1.2 percent from 2010.
It has a 500-room hotel, 4,600-car parking garage and 2,600 slot machines.