The Hamilton County Assessor of Property's office will not seek an appeal in the property tax exemption ruling relating to H. Michael Chitwood's nearly 37,000-square-foot complex on Lee Highway.
Marty Haynes, property assessor for the county, said his office received multiple calls about the property following a Times Free Press investigation into Chitwood's businesses and nonprofits, including the facility in question. The building is home to Celebration Church and Chitwood's International Congress of Churches and Ministers.
Chitwood operates a network of businesses, including an accounting firm specializing in religious organizations, and a series of nonprofits, some of which have been accused of being operated for his personal benefit.
The multimillionaire religious figure from Chattanooga bought the old Circuit City on Lee Highway in 2012. What the building was originally intended for was at the center of a yearslong dispute with the state of Tennessee worth nearly half a million dollars in property taxes.
Chitwood told the state repeatedly, including under oath in September, the building was used exclusively for religious purposes, which is why he sought a property tax exemption.
The state originally denied the application and initiated an investigation in 2014 after the state received marketing materials for the building advertising it as "Celebration! The most unique conference and event facility in the South." The materials said the space was "perfectly suited" for weddings, corporate events, beauty pageants, sweet 16 birthday parties, business conventions, gymnastic competitions, retail sales events and political events.
The Chattanooga businessman faced allegations of fabricating the appearance of a church on the property for a state inspection in November 2014, as well as modifying documents provided to the state regarding what events the facility hosted.
Under oath in a Sept. 2020 hearing about the property, Chitwood said he had "no knowledge of any weddings" on the property. Yet, in a recorded phone call from 2015 obtained by the Times Free Press, Chitwood discussed a wedding booked at his "Celebration ballroom."
A two-part Times Free Press investigation published in December uncovered more evidence the state either did not have or chose not to present during the September hearing about tax exemption. Such documents included internal emails, as well as a recording of Chitwood asking his event planner if the building's website and Facebook page would be unsearchable while the property was still being investigated.
The state did not call any witnesses to testify against Chitwood during the September hearing.
Chitwood and his legal team, including attorney Gary Henry, argued a former employee was renting out the facility for large scale events without Chitwood's knowledge. The employee was let go, Chitwood said.
Chitwood's lawyers argued successfully against having to turn over financial documents, lists of assets and business transactions related to Chitwood's organizations as part of the state's inquiry into the ICCM building. The lawyers also barred the state from access to documented communication within Chitwood's organizations about the state's site inspection, arguing that lawyers were "present for all communications regarding the site visit" and therefore none of it should be made public because of attorney-client privilege.
On Dec. 11, the administrative judge for the state ruled Chitwood would keep his exemption and not pay taxes on his building. The exemption allows Chitwood to avoid paying around $480,000 in taxes in total, according to an estimate stated during the September hearing.
The Hamilton County Assessor of Property's office has 30 days from the day of the ruling to initiate an appeal with the Tennessee Assessment Appeals Commission.
On Wednesday, Haynes said his office would not seek such an appeal.
"Based on the things that transpired in the hearing in [September], we're not prepared to move forward with an appeal," he said.
In March, Haynes won re-election as the county assessor after a bitter campaign against a fellow Republican during which Haynes faced accusations of not releasing public records and favoring political allies by lowering property values to decrease their taxes. In the months before the election, Chitwood's lawyer Gary Henry donated $1,000 to Haynes' campaign, according to financial disclosures from the Hamilton County Election Commission.
Contact Wyatt Massey at email@example.com or 423-757-6249. Follow him on Twitter @news4mass.
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