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    Valero Disputes Taxes Across Texas

    The convenience store chain has filed 150 lawsuits against 42 appraisal districts in the state, claiming that the property assessments are overvalued.

    SAN ANTONIO -- Valero Energy Corp. is suing appraisal districts in 85 Texas courts, arguing that assessments for properties ranging from convenience stores to refineries are overvalued, according to a San Antonio Express-News report.

    San Antonio-based Valero's appeals cover several years of property assessments, with millions of dollars in already-paid tax revenue at stake and the prospect for county governments of paying millions more in legal expenses, the report said.

    The tax disputes -- 150 lawsuits filed against 42 appraisal districts -- have been brewing for years, starting when gas prices were still close to $1 a gallon.

    Valero pays millions in property taxes, but property appraisers have doubled the value of several properties, and that's not fair, the company said.

    "At Valero, we are committed to paying our fair share of taxes," spokeswoman Mary Rose Brown told the Express-News in an e-mailed response to questions. "And we do pay a lot of taxes! In many instances, we are an area's largest single taxpayer."

    Contesting property appraisals is a national trend among companies, but it's grown stronger in Texas during the past decade because of the state's increasing reliance on property taxes to fund the state budget, said J. Andrew Hansz, professor with the finance and real estate department in the College of Business at the University of Texas at Arlington.

    "For companies, it is one way to minimize their expenses to maximize their profits," Hansz said. "Every year, companies routinely appeal their property assessments. Sounds like Valero is a bit more aggressive than others at doing this."

    Property appraisers across Texas say Valero is taking an aggressive, hard-nosed approach that borders on abusive because of the low valuations Valero is seeking.

    "This is all about corporate greed," said Ken Nolan, chief appraiser in Dallas County, where Valero is contesting the value of more than 80 gas and convenience stores from 2002 to 2005. "It's about corporations not wanting to pay their fair share."

    Valero, which reported a profit of $3.6 billion on $82 billion in revenue last year, paid more than $138 million in property taxes nationwide in 2005, up from $113 million in 2004, according to Brown. More than half its total property taxes are paid in Texas, she said, adding that "Valero only files valuation appeals to state district court as a last resort after all other options to settle our differences with the appraisal districts have been exhausted."

    Robert Mott, attorney for the Bexar Appraisal District and a dozen others in Texas, told the Express-News that there is a lot at stake. "Basically, if Valero prevails, somebody has to pay that refund. And above all, someone has to pay the cost of litigating these things, and that's other property owners," he said.

    But Valero, Brown said, "is simply following the recourse provided by law for property owners to protest unfair tax valuations. We are taking the same approach we have used since the inception of the property tax code in 1982. I believe most folks would consider it 'abusive' if their property tax appraisals jumped fivefold in a single year."

    For example, one of Valero's properties is now valued at $240 million, up from $50 million in 2005, Brown said. She declined to name the property or its location because it's involved in a lawsuit.

    "Some people might be tempted to say that gas prices are up, so our property values should be up, too," Brown said in the report. "But you have to remember, this is supposed to be a property tax -- not an income tax."

    In addition to the Texas lawsuits, Valero is suing appraisal districts in California and other states.

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