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The Commercial Appeal

Shelby County Assessor's Office says Blight Authority of Memphis should lose tax-exempt status

By Katherine Burgess, Memphis Commercial Appeal,


The Shelby County Assessor’s Office wants to remove the tax-exempt status of a city of Memphis entity, the Blight Authority of Memphis.

The Blight Authority of Memphis (BAM) is a quasi-governmental entity established by the city that operates a land bank, seeking to convert vacant and abandoned properties into productive use. Currently, those properties are not taxed.

But an internal memorandum from the Assessor’s Office says BAM has not been providing the Assessor’s Office with adequate information about its properties, leaving the Assessor unable to determine whether BAM deserves to continue with its tax-exempt status.

“An exemption from taxation is not an exemption from assessment,” reads the memorandum, written Feb. 6 by George Boyington, manager of policy and government affairs in the Assessor’s Office.

When the Assessor’s Office certifies its tax rolls on April 20, any properties in the name of the Blight Authority of Memphis will no longer be given tax-exempt status, said Javier Bailey, chief administrator in the Assessor’s Office.

“We have a duty to safeguard the taxpayers’ interests, so consequently we’ve now made the decision based on our authority that if they want an exemption they’re going to have to go to the state and get it, because I’m not going to approve one,” Bailey said.

The memorandum describes how the former head of the Blight Authority worked closely with the Assessor’s Office, including giving the office written notification of all properties held or released by BAM. At the time of BAM’s creation, the Assessor’s Office agreed it should be tax-exempt, something consistent with how the office treats other quasi-governmental entities, Bailey said.

However, the new director of BAM, Michael Harris, “has had very limited communication” with the Assessor’s Office, according to the memorandum. As of the time of the memo’s writing, Harris had interacted with the office four times, including “one animated, expletive-laced verbal interaction wherein Director Harris asserted that … he is not required to interact with any function of County Government.”

Harris referred requests for comment to the city’s communications team, who said the city had not seen the memorandum prior to The Commercial Appeal providing it.

The city plans to have a meeting with Assessor Melvin Burgess “to talk about this alleged issue,” said Allison Fouche, the city’s chief communications officer. Burgess also had not read the memorandum, Fouche said.

Bailey said the task of determining what properties should be tax-exempt has been delegated to him and that he “fully expect(s) Assessor Burgess to follow the recommendations of staff.”

BAM’s website is currently under construction, with a note that the entity “has placed a temporary moratorium on all of our programmatic activities.”

The memorandum also alleges that BAM may be violating state law: “The likely cause for the newly asserted secrecy may lie in the fact that Director Harris has offered BAM to act as a ‘tax shelter’ for for-profit investors by holding properties in the name of BAM in order that they be shielded from taxation.”

BAM’s Land Deposit Program does hold property for nonprofits, according to an archived version of the city’s website, reducing holding costs while the nonprofit assembles properties and does pre-development planning. However, it makes no mention of for-profit entities.

“If SCAP were to simply ignore its duty to maintain an adequate record of BAM property holdings, assess the market value of said properties, and collect relevant information in order to properly justify an exemption… Assessor (Melvin) Burgess directly and all Deputies and staff involved could be subject to liability for any erroneous or negligent decisions made with regards to improperly exempting some or all of BAM’s property holdings from taxation,” reads the memorandum.

Property held by a land bank can only be tax-exempt if it is held for a governmental purpose.

“To take on vacant land and not do anything with it, you don’t do anything but sell it off to developers and you keep the money, that’s not a governmental purpose,” Bailey said. “A governmental purpose is one where it furthers something for public benefit. I haven’t seen that, and that is my concern.”

Katherine Burgess covers government and religion. She can be reached at or followed on Twitter @kathsburgess.

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