Secretary of State Wants to Join Casino Lawsuit


Secretary of State Eric Clark wants to join Harrison County in a lawsuit filed by two casinos challenging the county's right to collect property tax on their dockside gambling sites. Clark has filed a motion to intervene on behalf of Harrison County, home to 11 of Mississippi's 30 state-regulated casinos.

Clark says the suit goes beyond the county's right to collect property tax on casino sites  it threatens Mississippi's public trust tidelands program. ``This isn't just about the way the county determines property taxes,'' he said. ``It's also about whether a casino can dock a barge on state property and pay our citizens no rent.''

One of Clark's duties as secretary of state is to be caretaker of the state's tidelands, which include lands covered by the daily rise and fall of the tide. The state collects about $5 million a year from tidelands lease holders, including casinos, and returns the money to the three coast counties for tidelands projects administered by the Department of Marine Resources.

In a suit filed in March in Harrison County Chancery Court, Imperial Palace Casino in Biloxi argues that the county has no right to appraise, assess and collect property tax on the casino site. Imperial Palace's casino floats on a barge in Biloxi's Back Bay. Imperial Palace says that because it has property on shore, immediately adjacent to the casino, state law allows it to dock its casino barge without paying property tax on the site. The casino says that docking the casino is part of its littoral rights. Littoral rights give beachfront and other upland owners the right of access to the water bordering their property.

Treasure Bay Casino in Biloxi, whose gambling barge floats in the Mississippi Sound, has joined the suit with Imperial Palace. A hearing is scheduled for Sept. 4.

Imperial Palace attorney Britt Singletary was unavailable for comment Tuesday. Sam Begley, who represents Treasure Bay, said he's not sure why Clark has requested to join the county's side because the suit primarily questions the county's method of appraising the casino sites and the right to assess the companies. He said the casinos already pay tax to the county on the upland part of their property, as well as the state's tidelands lease. ``We're actually paying (property) tax on tidelands we lease from the state,'' Begley said.

``We're concerned with how the tax assessor figures that amount.'' Clark says the issue is much broader. ``If the Imperial Palace's notion of littoral rights prevails, the Coast stands to lose responsible oversight of the casino industry and about $5 million annually in lease payments,'' he said.

Using Imperial Palace and Treasure Bay's theory, Clark said, casinos would not need a tidelands lease for their floating barges. Treasure Bay pays $620,000 a year for its lease and is $325,000 behind in its payments, according to secretary of state spokesman David Blount. IP pays $500,000 a year, Blount said.