LEWISBURG — A clerical error on the part of a company accountant, compounded by lack of cooperation from the West Virginia Tax Department, nearly cost a business that employs more than 100 local people nearly $153,000.
Following a 40-minute hearing Tuesday morning, Greenbrier County Commissioners voted unanimously to remove the charge totaling $152,824.17 from the WV Great Barrel Holding Company’s property tax bill.
Representing the holding company, the WV Barrel Company, LLC, and the two companies’ managing partner, Tom Crabtree, attorney Norm Daniel explained to the commission that equipment that had been paid for but was not yet on the premises of the barrel manufacturing plant in White Sulphur Springs as of July 1, 2019, had been listed on a report submitted to the Greenbrier County Assessor by the companies’ accountant.
Relying on the list provided by the companies, the assessor included the equipment in the 2019-20 assessment of the plant’s property.
The equipment, however, did not actually arrive at the plant until later in the year, Daniel said. The plant produced its first barrel on Dec. 30, 2019, then conducted training on the use of the equipment for the next two months, finally crafting its first commercial barrel on March 2, 2020, he noted.
Commissioner Tammy Tincher asked Daniel why — if a clerical error had been the root of a tax overcharge — did the companies not get in the touch with the assessor when they received an estimate of their property taxes in December 2019 or when they received the actual tax bill in July 2020. Representatives from the companies didn’t reach out to county officials until two weeks ago.
Daniel said he and the companies believed the state Tax Department could resolve the problem when it first arose. But his attempts to get assistance from the state were fruitless. For several months, the Tax Department didn’t return multiple calls or letters asking for a resolution to the problem, he said. Then, a couple of weeks ago, state officials advised him to take the assessment appeal to the county.
Crabtree backed up Daniel’s assertions about the lack of cooperation offered by the Tax Department, saying while the Great Barrel Company was still in the planning stages, he had tried to contact state tax officials for guidance in estimating taxes for the business, but received no response.
“We were flying blind,” Crabtree said.
Lack of information from the state tax office contributed to the current situation, he said, maintaining, “There’s a weakness in the process.”
Whether or not to grant an appeal that occurs outside of the usual Board of Equalization & Review process is left to the discretion of the county commission, Greenbrier County Prosecuting Attorney Patrick I. Via advised the commissioners, suggesting the outcome could hinge on whether they think the cause of the problem is “clerical error or mistake, versus negligence or exercise of poor judgment.”
“The statute doesn’t provide much guidance beyond (using) your own judgment,” Via said.
Daniel said the state Tax Department told him and his clients two weeks ago to take the issue to the county, and they had immediately done so.
“We were not negligent in pursuing this,” the attorney said.
Commissioner Mike McClung said, “I think our path is clear.” He made the motion to remove the equipment charge from the holding company’s 2019-20 tax ticket.
A second appeal by the WV Great Barrel Company, LLC, however, could not be resolved at the local level.
In that case, the assessor has charged the barrel company $37,863.33 for a quantity of oak staves that were on the premises of the White Sulphur plant as of July 1, 2019, which is the determining date for assessments.
Daniel asserted that assessment was prohibited by the Freeport Amendment, which excludes taxation of a business’ inventory that is in the process of being made into a finished product.
Crabtree noted the staves are crafted at Great Barrel’s facility (the Audrina Mill) in Monroe County, shipped to the barrel factory to rest onsite for six months and then assembled into barrels at the factory.
Daniel said he has already contacted the state Tax Department to take action to remove the staves from the assessment.
Commissioners agreed that the tax office would be the proper venue for that appeal.
After the decisions were made, Crabtree gave an update on the Great Barrel Company, now in its 14th month of producing oak barrels for the whiskey industry.
“We’re adding a second shift,” Crabtree reported, tying that in with his earlier mention of having hired 15 more employees just last week.
“As of today, we have created 115 jobs in the region,” he said, noting that 45 of the jobs are at the sawmill in Monroe County, and the other 70 are at the barrel plant in White Sulphur Springs.
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