High court to hear Lane’s tax suit

Henry Lane, a self-described anti-tax activist, stands to gain 53 cents in the lawsuit and has spent about $26,000 of his own money in litigation costs.
Friday, September 3, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 3:15 p.m. CDT, Friday, July 11, 2008

The Missouri Supreme Court has ruled that it will review a property-tax lawsuit against the Columbia School District and Boone County Collector Pat Lensmeyer.

The case stems from a suit filed by Henry Lane, a self-described anti-tax activist, who has run for the Columbia school board six times and failed.

Lane’s suit charged that the Columbia School District set an illegally high tax rate in 2001.

“Our school district has not been following the law,” Lane said when asked why the case, dismissed at its initial hearing by retired Boone County Circuit Judge Frank Conley in 2002, continues to be heard throughout the court system years later.

According to Lane and eight other plaintiffs listed on the lawsuit, the district knowingly set its tax rate too high to acquire an estimated $1 million more than the budgeted $56.2 million in 2001.

The plaintiffs pressed their issues by filing an appeal with the Missouri Court of Appeals. A three-judge panel from the Kansas City District sided with Lane in May. The appellate decision stated that all nine plaintiffs listed on the suit should receive a refund on their overpaid taxes.

The amount in question is somewhere between $73 and $78 total. Lane would be awarded 53 cents, but the payment cannot be awarded until the Supreme Court gives its ruling. Lane has spent more than $26,000 of his own money in the case.

The district and the county collector pushed for a transfer of the case to the Missouri Supreme Court. The plaintiffs in the suit now have until Sept. 23 to file a written brief.

Lane admits that he and his group must prepare again to present their whole case. He hopes the Supreme Court will affirm the ruling by the three-judge panel.

“I think of myself as a concerned citizen,” he said. “I am someone who not only talks about the issues but tries to correct them. I want to improve the quality of education.”

Lane said he thinks the district should be excluded from the lawsuit and that only the county collector and all the taxpayers should be party to the case. He stressed three major concerns that he hopes will be recognized by the Supreme Court. They include the legality of the tax rate, the status of class action within the case and having all taxpayers represented.

Alex Bartlett, the lawyer representing the district, has problems with Lane’s assertion that the district has no place in the lawsuit.

“The issues are between the plaintiffs and the school district and not really with the collector,” he said.

Bartlett said he is pleased that the Supreme Court is going to consider the case and is hopeful that the Supreme Court will affirm Conley’s earlier decision. “I don’t think they will side with the plaintiffs,” he said.

The lawsuit continues to be a costly one for the district. According to Jacque Cowherd, deputy superintendent for administration, the total cost between January 2002 and August 2004 was $111,540, similar to the sum of two teachers’ annual salaries for the district.

The Supreme Court is not expected to hear arguments in the case until late this year or early next year, Bartlett said.

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