BUFFALO — The time for negotiations is over.

Another batch of disputed property tax bills from coalbed methane companies Carbon Creek Energy and Powder River Midstream is off to its next phase of litigation.

The companies disagreed with the Johnson County assessor's 2016 valuation of their equipment and have accordingly protested their tax bills every year since. With each passing tax cycle, the amount in question grew from $1.6 million to more than $7 million.

The 2016 case is already awaiting a hearing in district court, after a split decision from the state Board of Equalization in 2018 that ruled in favor of the county on protests related to Carbon Creek and in favor of the company on those related to Powder River Midstream.

At a Dec. 3 Board of Equalization meeting, the county commissioners, acting as the Board of Equalization, unanimously voted to lift stays on the 2017 and 2018 protests held pending the board's evaluation of the 2019 protest at a Nov. 18 hearing and send them on the same path to higher court.

At the November hearing, the commissioners voted to give Deputy County Attorney Barry Crago and the companies' attorney Walter Eggers two weeks to come to a settle ment after Crago said that scheduling conflicts prevented them from meeting to negotiate after a September hearing on the case.

It's no small compromise they're after: The property values presented by the companies' tax agent, Kelley Stewart,

cash in at less than 3% of the county-assessed values for

Carbon Creek's property, and about 17% of those assessed for Powder River Midstream. Stewart's figures would shrink the companies' more than $7 million assessed tax obligation to about $700,000.

That extension carried through the Dec. 3 Board of Equalization hearing, when Crago informed the commissioners that he and Eggers had still not reached an agreement.

"We had some good discussions about settling the case," Crago said. "They drove up here and met with us. I think we're close we had some fairly concrete discussions about numbers."

The commissioners granted Crago yet another negotiating extension, until Dec. 10 at 5 p.m.

"I would not be willing to go beyond a week to resolve this," Commissioner Bill Novotny said. "The board was very clear that we wanted this resolved. If they cannot meet (that deadline), let's go to court."

At the same time, they scheduled a Board of Equalization hearing at the end of January, aiming for the earliest possible date that gives the parties sufficient time to formally file exhibits.

Eggers and Crago spoke before the board again on Dec. 17, and reported that there was no new agreement.

"I'm sorry we're not in a position to tell you the (January) hearing is unnecessary," Eggers said.

“This has been dragging on since 2016," Novotny said, affirming a desire to have a hearing as soon as possible. “Enough is enough.”

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