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Court: Chamber of Commerce is considered a charity and doesn’t have to pay taxes

A dissenting opinion warns that the ruling creates vast if not limitless exemptions.

Rejecting arguments of the Alachua County property appraiser and tax collector, a divided appeals court Thursday upheld a property-tax exemption for the Gainesville Area Chamber of Commerce because of the non-profit organization’s “charitable” purpose.

The chamber had a property-tax exemption before 2014, but the property appraiser and tax collector then denied the exemption.

At least in part, the denial stemmed from a decision that economic development has not traditionally been considered a charitable activity, according to Thursday’s decision by a panel of the 1st District Court of Appeal. A circuit judge found a charitable purpose and ruled in favor of the chamber, a ruling that was upheld Thursday.

“In conclusion, the function of the chamber mirrors some of the functions already undertaken by the state, and thus, the chamber performs a function the discontinuance of which could result in the legal allocation of public funds,” said the ruling, written by appeals-court Judge Ross Bilbrey and joined by Judge Clay Roberts. “Therefore, the chamber is entitled to an exemption from ad valorem taxation pursuant to the application of the unambiguous terms (of part of state law defining charitable purposes).”

But Judge Susan Kelsey, in a dissenting opinion, disagreed with the majority’s logic. “The chamber’s interpretation of the charitable-exemption statute, extending it to any activity for which a governmental entity could legally expend funds, improperly broadens the ‘charitable’ purpose to become synonymous with any ‘public’ purpose,” Kelsey wrote. “This violates the rule that tax exemptions must be strictly construed. Interpreting the statute without reference to its underlying constitutional limitations would create vast if not limitless exemptions.”