FLDS tax bill to be monumental

Schleicher County officials expect levies to add $450,000 to budgets

San Angelo Standard, Texas/June 24, 2006
By Matt Phinney

A huge white building towers above a vista of trees north of Eldorado, nearly as large as San Angelo's 1st Community Credit Union Spur Arena.

It's an 80,000-square-foot monument built by members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS). Locals call it "the temple," a reference to the belief that it's a place of worship for the polygamist group that lives nearby.

While the new building, and the church's presence near Eldorado, has drawn worldwide media attention, it also will be a financial boost for this rural county in the form of property tax revenue. The group has faithfully paid its property taxes since buying the land, and this year's note should be the biggest yet.

The massive building was appraised for the first time this year and stands at a preliminary value of about $8 million. The entire YFZ Ranch north of Eldorado, where the building is located, has an assessed value of nearly $18 million, according to preliminary numbers by Schleicher County Appraiser Scott Sutton.

Final values aren't certified until the end of July, but the building could well be the highest-valued property in the county.

County entities don't get any tax money for PAVE PAWS, a huge early warning military radar system built near Eldorado during the Cold War that is now little more than a shell. The federal government does not use the site, but still owns the land, making it tax-exempt.

The YFZ money will be divided between the county, the school district, the local hospital district and an underground water district, depending upon those entities' tax rates.

If the numbers at the YFZ ranch stand, the group's tax bill would be about $450,000. The sect paid about $200,000 last year.

All entities in Schleicher County offer an incentive for taxpayers to pay early. They get a 3-percent discount if the bill is paid in October, 2 percent in November and 1 percent in December.

The YFZ Ranch paid its taxes in October last year, and in December in 2004 when it purchased the land, Sutton said.

The county's tax rate is about 72 cents per $100 of taxable value. The county's budget is about $2 million, about 70 percent of which comes from oil and gas revenue.

The county hasn't begun work on its 2007 budget, so the full impact of the new values is not yet known, but County Judge Johnny Griffin said it's obvious the group's money will benefit taxpayers in the county.

"The more they pay, the less everyone else pays," Griffin said. "We are pretty close with the dollar (amounts). We don't have a choice. I wouldn't suspect commissioners would go with anything out of the ordinary. I think they will do what they can to maintain the level of services we have always had."

Sutton was last on the ranch in February and said the ranch's residents were accommodating in providing accurate measurements of the buildings. Those measurements, depreciation, appreciation and other factors are used to determine taxable value.

According to the state tax code, property owned by religious organizations may qualify for a property-tax exemption if the organization files for an exemption and shows it qualifies for the discount. Eligible property includes places of worship and residences of clergy, according to the code.

Sutton said the group has never filed for an exemption.

Church members bought the land near Eldorado, about 45 miles south of San Angelo, and constructed dozens of buildings on the land, but none as large as the temple. Construction on other buildings began after Jan. 1, the deadline for a building to be taxable in a given year.

There has been no clear indication of how many church members plan to move to the ranch or whether church leader and prophet Warren Jeffs has ever been in Eldorado, or on the ranch.

In May, the FBI placed Jeffs on its 10 Most Wanted list, alongside Osama bin Laden, and is offering a reward of as much as $100,000 for information leading to Jeffs' arrest.

The church also owns property in Colorado, South Dakota, Mexico, Arizona, Utah and Canada.

Jeffs, 50, is wanted in an alleged sexual assault on a minor in 2002, and one count of conspiracy to commit sexual conduct with a minor in 2002. The alleged offenses took place near Colorado City, Ariz. Jeffs also is wanted on accusations of rape as an accomplice in Utah, according to the FBI's Web site.

Schleicher County Sheriff David Doran was out of town at a conference this week, and FBI officials in Dallas and Phoenix did not return phone calls for comment on Jeffs and his cash flow.

Commissioners don't expect to get tax money from the YFZ forever, Griffin said. With Jeffs wanted by the law, the funding source for the YFZ could dry up at a moment's notice. If Jeffs is arrested, his assets could be frozen.

If the tax money ever stops coming, the ranch will face foreclosure like anyone else, Griffin said.

"If they keep paying their taxes, then great," he said. "We won't get used to a custom of living off that income. We might get it, and we might not."

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