Bill targets clubs' tax breaks

Posted Saturday, Mar. 16, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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kennedy When Republicans meet for luncheons in Arlington's Rolling Hills Country Club, they decry welfare and government handouts.

Yet one of Arlington's biggest government handouts goes to Rolling Hills Country Club.

The private club benefits from a long-standing city, county and school property tax savings of about 80 percent for agreeing to preserve "greenbelt" -- in this case, a private golf course.

That might not change anytime soon. But somebody in Austin wants to talk about it.

Rolling Hills is one of 36 clubs singled out by a Houston Democrat critical of country-club appraisals along with the $43 billion in sales, franchise and property tax breaks and incentives offered in Texas, which strips money from the state, cities and schools.

According to the Tarrant Appraisal District, the club's $12.5 million property and clubhouse are taxed at a reduced value of about $2 million under a 1977 law offering special appraisals for restricted "recreational, park and scenic land."

State Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, has filed Senate Bill 1511 to eliminate the special savings for clubs charging more than a token entrance fee.

Along with state Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, he also co-authored Senate Bill 140, which would trigger a general review and possible repeal of more discounts and incentives.

In a recent radio interview, Ellis offered his hometown River Oaks Country Club's 95 percent tax break as an example of tax money lost, much of it never accounted or reported.

"We have no earthly idea what [the exemptions] are, what they cost, who benefits from them," he told public radio's StateImpact Texas.

In an Austin American-Statesman report, former House Speaker Gib Lewis of Fort Worth defended his 1977 tax law, saying golf courses and sailing clubs enhance adjacent property value enough to make up the lost revenue.

"A lot of green spaces would not have been created without that law," he said.

Rolling Hills' attorney, Gregory McCarthy, said the lower appraisal is justified because the golf course land is limited to park and recreational use for 10 years.

"The property might be worth $12 million, but nobody would buy it with that kind of restriction," he said.

"This isn't really an exemption. It's a completely different way to appraise the property. It encourages green space in urban areas."

According to the appraisal district, six other local country clubs benefit from the tax discount, most notably Colonial in Fort Worth. But no other club saves as much as Rolling Hills, in a prime location off Interstate 30 at North Cooper Street.

McCarthy was philosophical.

"That which the Legislature gives," he said, "the Legislature also can take away."

If the Legislature can find it.

Bud Kennedy's column appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays. 817-390-7538

Twitter: @budkennedy

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