TALLAHASSEE — The Florida First District Court of Appeal ruled May 2 that the Gainesville Area Chamber of Commerce is exempt from paying property taxes because it is a charitable organization.
Judge Ross L. Bilbrey authored the panel's opinion. Judge L. Clayton Roberts concurred, but Judge Susan L. Kelsey dissented and authored a separate opinion.
The chamber was previously granted an exemption from taxes prior to 2014, but was denied after that. It challenged the denial and appealed the Value Adjustment Board's ruling to the Alachua County Circuit Court, which found that the chamber was entitled to the exemption. Alachua County and its tax collector appealed that decision.
Bilbrey wrote that the chamber performs a community service.
"As the trial court further found, 'there is no doubt that economic development serves a public purpose for which public funds can be allocated,'" the decision stated.
Alachua County contended that despite its unambiguous language, a tax exemption for “charitable purposes” should be limited to “benevolent” purposes.
"As the promotion of business and economic development is not traditionally understood as a charitable activity, property used for business and economic development should not be entitled to a tax exemption under the charitable purposes provision of the state constitution, Alachua County argues," Bilbrey wrote.
The majority ruled that the function of the chamber is the same as functions already taken by the state and, because of that, "the chamber performs a function the discontinuance of which could result in the legal allocation of public funds."
It ruled that the chamber is entitled to the tax exemption and affirmed the circuit court's ruling.
In her dissent, Kelsey wrote that she disagreed with the majority and that the state legislature's description and the chamber's interpretation of the statute do not match up.
"Nothing in the legislative history supports the chamber’s interpretation," Kelsey wrote. "To the contrary, the public policy rationale for the statutory amendment was described as a way to ensure that 'important public services are continued' and that 'such services could be provided at no or minimal cost to those that could not afford such services from private, for-profit organizations.'"
Kelsey said the panel should have reversed the decision of the lower court.
Florida First District Court of Appeal case number: 1D17-0452