Lightning behind the castle 07/19/21 by Nathanael James Stockton

After settling a 2015 court battle with the Orange County Property Appraiser’s Office over the fair market value of the Magic Kingdom, EPCOT, and a dozen other Disney theme park assets, the Walt Disney Company will receive millions in refunds from state and local taxes authorities.

The deal was achieved through mediation, bringing an end to a five-year-long legal struggle.

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The total refund has yet to be calculated, but Orange County Tax Collector Scott Randolph said Monday that Disney would be due about $1.3 million for the tax year 2015, and likely similar amounts for tax years 2016 through 2020, which are also covered by the agreement approved by Circuit Judge Kevin B. Weiss last week.

Property taxes, a key source of revenue for local governments and school districts, are based on appraised valuations.

Amy Mercado, a first-year Orange County Property Appraiser, stated that the settlement was made without her office performing fresh assessments on the Disney properties.

“The numbers never changed. What changed was the willingness to have a conversation and go to mediation,” said Mercado, who took up the lawsuit from Rick Singh. Disney’s lawyers and the property appraiser met in mediation on April 14.

When asked if she felt the deal would make taxpayers pleased, Mercado responded, “When both sides are uncomfortable then you’ve probably hit the sweet spot.” She said that Disney desired a lower assessment, which would have resulted in a greater reimbursement for the tourist behemoth.

In June 2016, Disney filed a lawsuit saying that Singh’s personnel inflated the fair-market valuations of the 14 theme park assets, which included the Magic Kingdom, EPCOT, Hollywood Studios, and Animal Kingdom, as well as smaller venues such as Blizzard Beach, Typhoon Lagoon, and Fantasia Golf.

The deal was not remarked on by Disney or its Tampa-based lawyer, Robert E.V. Kelley Jr.

Singh was also unavailable for comment. Singh lost his Democratic primary campaign for a third consecutive term as property appraiser in August.

Disney paid its annual property tax bills as required by law over the years while contesting the assessments in circuit court.

Mercado stated that the settlement will result in “substantial” returns to Disney for tax years 2015 through 2020, though she did not provide specific amounts.

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“We’re still working through those numbers,” she said.

Randolph stated that his agency is expecting “certificates of correction” from the appraiser’s office in order to compute Disney’s reimbursements.

In 2015, the theme-park conglomerate paid approximately $23 million in property taxes levied by six authorities — the state for public education, Orange County Government, Orange County Public Schools, the county library system, the South Florida Water Management District, and Bay Lake, a Disney-controlled municipality.

Randolph stated that part of the reimbursements will come from monies held in reserve by his agency for ongoing lawsuits.

“We’ve been anticipating these but, of course, we’re not involved in the negotiations so we never know exactly what the settlements are going to be,” he said. “But a couple of years ago I had discussions with the big taxing authorities — the city, the county, and the schools — and I said, ‘Hey, you should know there’s a lot of litigation out there, and we’re holding back more [money] in reserves than what we would normally hold back.’ “

According to him, the taxation authorities may have to make some budget modifications.

When Mercado entered office in January, she claimed she inherited the Disney lawsuit as well as roughly 300 others brought by taxpayers against Singh.

“The office had been very litigious,” Mercado added, whose legal expenditures budget is $1.6 million, the same as Singh’s.

“This will not be the last [settlement] you will see as we continue to clean up, clean up, and get [to] a clean slate.”

In 2016, Universal Orlando and SeaWorld also sued Singh, saying that his 2015 evaluations of their sites were exorbitant.

Singh, who clashed with Disney throughout his two years as an appraiser, frequently defended his office’s work and accused Disney executives of covertly collaborating with a South Florida-based political action group to send attack mailers to Democratic voters. Disney did not respond.

“Of the [tax] lawsuits we have on the books right now, half come from Walt Disney World,” Singh said last year. “It’s sad that this is the way they’re trying to skirt paying their fair share of taxes … Instead of spending money on these wild, baseless attacks, they should just pay their tax bills.’’

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During his re-election campaign, he stated that winning battles to retain values established by his assessment team meant more money on county tax rolls.

Taxpayers regularly contest their property assessments in the circuit court or through the Value Adjustment Board (VAB).

Universal received a $1.4 million property-tax rebate in 2009 as part of a deal reached with Singh’s predecessor, Bill Donegan, to resolve a protracted legal battle. Donegan and Universal had a falling out over agricultural exemptions and the value of Universal’s customer parking facilities.

Last year, almost 3,800 people petitioned the VAB, a five-person body established by the state Legislature to examine complaints to assessments, taxation classifications, homestead exemptions, and other property appeals that might influence how much ad valorem tax the owner must pay.

The board appointed special magistrates to examine appeals granted 128 applications. The panel did not examine any Disney properties.

According to a summary of the panel’s work on the Comptroller’s website, VAB decisions lowered tax liabilities by approximately $1.4 million.

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