The tax man cometh—even for tax-exempt organizations.

The Quivira Coalition, recognized as a nonprofit organization by the state and the feds for more than a decade, is in a dispute with the Santa Fe County tax assessor.

Quivira works to find common ground between ranchers, environmentalists and government agencies. The group stages workshops and conferences, publishes books and newsletters, and gets its hands dirty on its own ranch and with land and water restoration projects. Though somewhat unique in its approach to sustainability issues, Quivira is a pretty classic example of what a nonprofit is supposed to be—as opposed to any number of corporate front groups that also enjoy tax-exempt status.

But according to papers filed in the First Judicial District Court last month in Santa Fe, the county says Quivira's educational works don't get it entirely off the hook as far as taxes go.

The dispute concerns a building and parking lot at 1413 Second St., which Quivira purchased in 2007, after having leased space there from the EC Thaw Charitable Trust. The building is assessed at $328,000, the parking lot at $59,000; the annual property taxes would amount to approximately $3,000.

In 2008, Quivira filed a claim for a property tax exemption based on the organization's charitable and educational purpose. The county denied that claim on the basis that Quivira uses the building as administrative office space. According to the court papers, Quivira also makes nearly $20,000 a year renting part of the building to three tenants, including Earth Works Institute and the Santa Fe Watershed Association, also nonprofits.
"The uses of the building did not change at all," Quivira attorney Cullen Hallmark says. "We went down and applied for the same educational exemption that Thaw had. The county denied that…They say administrative work may not be educational. We don't agree with that."

Quivira filed a protest against the county's denial, but that was shot down too.

"[W]hile it would appear that many of the off-site activities of the property owner may well be charitable or educational, the same cannot be said for the uses of the property in question," Phillip Sena, chairman of the Santa Fe County Valuation Protests Board, wrote in his January ruling against Quivira. "The record includes no substantial evidence in support of the assertion that any substantial use of the property is for actual, immediate educational or charitable activities."

And so, late last month, Quivira took its case to court.

Santa Fe County Assessor Domingo Martinez was not immediately available for comment.

Quivira Coalition Cofounder and Executive Director Courtney White says the case hasn't distracted him from his work.

"It's not a bloody brawl or anything—just kind of a lawyer-legal thing," White says. "I would speculate that in this economic downturn, the county needs every penny it can get from folks. We don't feel it's directed at us."

Whatever the county's reasons, Quivira's attorney thinks officials made a hasty mistake.

"I don't think there's really any question about what Quivira is and what they use that building for, and I think it's unconscionable for the county to disregard that," Hallmark says.

In many ways, the case echoes the long-running tax dispute between Santa Fe County and the Georgia O'Keefe Museum, which went all the way to the New Mexico Court of Appeals before being settled in 2003.

In that case, the museum itself was deemed tax-exempt, but a separate café was declared taxable.

The county agreed to refund the museum for a year-and-a-half's worth of property taxes.