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Votes

Weighing Tax Exemptions

County to develop policy after three organizations make requests.

Should Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) get a tax break?

"It's a touchy subject right now," said Finance and Government Services Committee chairman James Burton (I-Mercer) at Monday's committee meeting.

HHMI requested a tax exemption for a 206-acre section of the Janelia Farm property, location of its future biomedical research campus, but not for the existing office buildings and planned commercial portions already on the property. The tax exemption for 2004 is estimated at $132,000.

The "critical question" is why HHMI should be tax exempt, said Thomas Cech, president of HHMI, at the committee meeting. HHMI is a charitable organization that has received tax exemption in every other jurisdiction where it has built its laboratories. "We only ask for similar treatment," he said.

IN 2008 once HHMI's research campus is built, the value of the tax exemption is estimated to reach $5.8 million.

"The value of that property will go up significantly because Howard Hughes will be ready to go," said Charles Harris (D-Broad Run), adding that the tax exemption as a cost to the county is the "incorrect image to have." "The only thing people are looking at is the loss of $5.8 million beginning in 2008. What they're not looking at is the billions of dollars in value that this will bring to Loudoun County."

Burton expects HHMI to "attract numerous business activities."

"It's a great pleasure to me HHMI decided to come to Loudoun County without asking for special deals," he said.

The Loudoun County Republican Committee approved a resolution against HHMI's request. "The HHMI proposal would exempt one of the most prime commercial properties in the county from real estate taxes, resulting in a loss of revenue to the county that will affect the tax base at a time of already declining commercial tax proceeds," the resolution states.

Cech mentioned that HHMI plans to develop educational partnerships, valued at $1 million a year, with the public schools. The partnerships could include establishing a science academy at one of the schools, providing hands-on experiences at the campus and offering scholarships. "Therefore, we've been surprised ... at the controversy surrounding our tax exemption request," he said.

BESIDES HHMI, Prison Fellowship Ministries and the Virginia Regional Transportation Association requested tax exemptions for 2004. The county allows tax exemptions for churches, private schools, hospitals and property owned and used by organizations for religious, charitable, historical, cultural and other purposes.

Prison Fellowship Ministries asked for a $179,000 tax exemption after it relocates its headquarters from Fairfax County to the Lansdowne Corporate Park. The Ministries works with prisoners and their families to provide them with skills and to give them the support they need to rejoin society and break the patterns that led them to the criminal activities in the first place.

The Virginia Regional Transportation Association, owner of a 3.7-acre parcel in Purcellville, requested a tax exemption of $26,200.

Burton recommended the county develop a policy to handle real property tax exemption requests. The committee approved with a 3-0 vote to forward the recommendation to the full board.

"I don't like criticism of these kind of decisions without making a policy first," Burton said. "The fact you have this exemption elsewhere is in your favor," he told HHMI.

The Board of Supervisors is scheduled to vote on the policy staff will develop and on the tax exemptions requests at its Dec. 15 meeting.