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Does Your Property Tax Assessment Reflect COVID-19's Long-Term Challenges?

Here are a number of approaches to defending against excessive tax assessments.

Countless companies have seen their top and bottom lines decimated by COVID-related shutdowns, travel restrictions and changing consumer preferences since the start of the pandemic. Yet for many taxpayers, property tax values have changed little or even increased.

Many of these taxpayers have been surprised to receive property tax bills that do not reflect the real and lingering economic challenges that the retail, hospitality, office and other industries have, are, and will continue to face. These taxpayers – and even those in industries better suited to weather the storm – should give special attention to ensuring they receive fair and reasonable assessments.

Observe Valuation Dates, Notices and Appeal Deadlines

With a large percentage of employees working remotely, together with an inconsistent postal service, it is more important than ever to have dedicated employees and knowledgeable property tax professionals reviewing property value assessments annually and filing timely protests when warranted. Failure to receive a tax valuation notice rarely excuses a missed protest deadline, so it is vital to know and comply with applicable deadlines.

Many property tax bills issued in 2020 were based on statutory valuation dates that preceded the emergence of COVID-19. For instance, assessors working under a valuation date of Oct. 1, 2019, or January 1, 2020, were quick to tell taxpayers to "wait until next year" before assessments could reflect any impact from COVID-19.

Not surprisingly, some assessors are now arguing that the pandemic was temporary and that its worst effects have passed. In some jurisdictions, assessors simply carried forward the prior year's cost-based value with no adjustments to account for additional depreciation or functional and economic obsolescence. In other cases, assessors have relied on pre-pandemic sales during the relevant tax cycle to justify increases over the preceding tax year.

Many locales had few sales in the early stages of the pandemic, and in these cases, the assessor may downplay or entirely ignore the actual impact of COVID-19 on market values. In contesting assessments in each of these cases, it is helpful to not only demonstrate the immediate difficulties that began in March 2020, but also the pandemic's lingering effects on the taxpayer's current and future operations.

Although the pandemic has affected all industries, certain sectors face unique challenges that will persist well beyond the initial virus surges and vaccine rollouts. These include, but are not limited to, brick and mortar retailers competing with ever-expanding e-commerce, office buildings competing with flexible work options including remote work, and hotels competing for elusive business travel in a cost-cutting environment. Some of these challenges are trends that began long before the pandemic, such as the slow death of enclosed malls as consumers increasingly favor lifestyle centers and online shopping.

COVID-19 Influences by Property Sector

Retail. Since the early 2000's, e-commerce's share of total retail sales has increased each year. The pandemic accelerated that trend, arguably by years, when people who had long resisted shopping online no longer had the same in-store options, and experienced online shoppers became more comfortable buying things like groceries and large-ticket items online.

These evolving shopping habits certainly affect the desirability and value of retail real estate, especially of those buildings constructed before the scope of today's e-commerce world could be contemplated. Landlords must now think outside the box when re-tenanting shopping centers, often filling vacancies with restaurants, service and entertainment concepts. These uses can create parking, zoning and other challenges for centers built for traditional retail.

In the case of big box stores, companies such as Walmart are looking at converting portions of existing stores to warehouse or fulfillment space for e-commerce. All these changes to keep up with the rapidly evolving marketplace shine a light on the functional and economic obsolescence present in many retail properties.

Office. Office landlords are also facing rapid market evolution, including an accelerating trend toward more remote and flexible work options. The pandemic made Zoom meetings ubiquitous and gave employees a taste, and perhaps a future expectation, of more work-from-home opportunities.

In light of the Delta variant's spread, many large companies have delayed their anticipated returns to the office, with Google now postponing its return until at least January 2022. Although some of the pandemic's effects on office occupancy have already occurred, the full impact will continue to play out as leases expire and companies reevaluate the volume and design of office space they require.

Hospitality. The hotel and travel industry suffered some of COVID-19's most immediate and devastating financial casualties. Leisure and business travel ground to a near halt, with hotel stays and flight counts falling to once-unimaginable lows. Corporate travel has yet to make a meaningful recovery and remains at a fraction of pre-pandemic levels. Throughout the country, corporations are cutting back on travel budgets as they weigh its costs and health risks against alternatives such as video conferencing.

Business travel and events are unlikely to return to pre-pandemic levels until 2024, according to a recent American Hotel & Lodging Association survey. Although the leisure travel industry benefitted from pent-up demand during the summer of 2021, the Delta variant has undermined that temporary resurgence. And even with the recent increase in leisure travel, airplane traffic is still well below 2019 levels.

These are just a few of the industries that will continue to see COVID-19 weigh down their businesses and property values. Property and business owners should closely review their property tax values to make sure assessments adequately reflect the specific challenges affecting their properties, to include the pandemic's immediate, ongoing and future financial impact.

Aaron D. Vansant is a partner in the law firmDonovanFingar LLC, the Alabama member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.
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