Bellevue Chamber of Commerce suspends programming in wake of woes with tax-exempt status

By: - January 5, 2023 1:14 pm

Bellevue Chamber of Commerce (Screenshot courtesy of Bellevue Chamber of Commerce)

BELLEVUE, Nebraska — Programs have been suspended at the Bellevue Chamber of Commerce & Community as the agency tries to regain tax-exempt status, which it lost a decade ago for failure to properly file federal tax forms.

Chamber president and CEO Michelle Andahl this week announced her departure in light of the tax problem that apparently she was not told about when hired less than two years ago.

In a letter to chamber members, Andahl offered to be a “trusted resource” during the transition, but she said “personal ethics would not allow me to continue accepting any member funding in 2023 without this being resolved.”

Letter to members

When contacted by the Nebraska Examiner, Andahl, a former Sarpy County election commissioner appointed by then-Gov. Pete Ricketts, said that all information the chamber was ready to release was in the letter shared with members.

According to that Jan. 2 correspondence, Andahl said the lack of Internal Revenue Service tax-exempt status came to her attention last year at tax filing time.

The chamber actually lost the status back in 2011 due to failure to file required annual tax forms, Andahl’s letter said. It went on to say that the first attempt to address the issue by filing tax paperwork and requesting retroactive reinstatement of the status did not happen until the 2017-18 fiscal year.

From that year on, Andahl’s letter said, the chamber filed tax forms, but to date, the IRS still has not reinstated tax-exempt status.

Records show that Megan Lucas was chamber president and CEO in 2011 and for several years preceding that. In March 2012, Lucas was succeeded by businessman Jim Ristow, who currently is the Bellevue city administrator. Ristow served as chamber president until 2018.

Corporate tax debt in question

The letter does not elaborate on why the chamber of Nebraska’s third largest city neglected to file the proper tax paperwork.

It said the tax-exempt status does not impact members that have paid memberships or partnered in programs, but it does determine whether the chamber would owe corporate taxes on revenue generated.

In an interview Thursday, Ristow said that to his knowledge, the chamber’s bookkeeper was filing tax paperwork during his tenure. He said chamber leaders have not sought information from him, and that neither he nor Bellevue Mayor Rusty Hike have had discussions with the chamber regarding the tax problem or suspension of programming.

Established in 1938, the Bellevue chamber is currently listed in good standing by the Nebraska Secretary of State’s Office. The chamber has about 380 members, including businesses, nonprofits and community organizations.

Andahl said an organization could legally continue to do business during the retroactive reinstatement application process.

Chamber board votes to suspend activity

However, the chamber board voted Dec. 29 to suspend chamber programs.

Meanwhile, the reinstatement process Andahl’s administration launched last year goes on.

“I hired legal counsel for the organization and the board is working closely with them to rectify this 11-plus year issue,” Andahl wrote. She added: “There is no known timeline as to when, or if, the chamber will be reinstated.”

Efforts have stepped up between Bellevue and Sarpy County Chamber officials to fill the void. The two chambers aren’t merging, according to the letter. 

But leaders of both groups agreed to focus on helping Bellevue chamber members explore opportunities with the Sarpy chamber. Bellevue chamber programs — such as Power Partner networking groups, Music Bingo and activities related to Offutt Air Force Base — are to continue under the Sarpy chamber flag.

Barry Haire, the Bellevue chamber’s vice president of membership, has been hired by the Sarpy chamber and is helping acclimate the Bellevue members to Sarpy.

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Cindy Gonzalez
Cindy Gonzalez

Senior Reporter Cindy Gonzalez, an Omaha native, has more than 35 years of experience, largely at the Omaha World-Herald. Her coverage areas have included business and real estate development; regional reporting; immigration, demographics and diverse communities; and City Hall and local politics. She has won awards from organizations including Great Plains Journalism, the Society for Advancing Business Editing and Writing (SABEW) and the Associated Press. Cindy has been recognized by various nonprofits for community contributions and diversity efforts. She chairs the board that oversees the local university’s student newspaper.

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