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Property Tax Pitfalls in 'Crane City USA'

Tennessee's appeal process allows Nashville taxpayers to challenge the complicated assessment of new construction.

Over the past decade, Nashville has enjoyed a baffling explosion of growth that sent cranes shooting up all over the city, festooned with developer names like Bell, Clark and Giarratana. Highrise towers of glass and steel rose out of the old rail yards like the emerging monolith in the opening scene of "2001: A Space Odyssey" multiplied in a funhouse mirror.

The Metropolitan Government is eager to add new projects to its tax rolls, and its Assessor of Property decides when and how that happens. The assumptions made by the Assessor's office about a project's cost and timing dictate how quickly and how much a new building is taxed. So, as always, taxpayers need to keep an eye on what the assessor is doing.

The assessor's difficult job has become even more complicated in the post-COVID quagmire of supply chain failures. Twelve-month projects have stretched into 24-month projects, and the assessor's assumptions about completion times have been thrown out of whack. To make matters worse, Tennessee's property tax statutes were not designed to give relief for construction delays or lengthy projects, and the clock is ticking.

New Construction Assessed at Material Cost

The last Davidson County reappraisal was in 2021, and the next will be in 2025. Normally, the assessor's values remain unchanged over the four-year cycle, but new construction is an exception to that rule.

Under the statute for assessing projects under construction, if a new improvement is partially complete on Jan. 1, the assessor is to value the property for that year at land value plus the cost of materials used in the improvement as of that date. This materials-only value favors taxpayers because it excludes labor costs.

The construction documents that are generally accepted as evidence of project costs do not typically segregate labor versus material costs, however. Those costs are most often listed as combined totals, making the exact material costs difficult to determine.

One example from a recently reviewed document described work that included a $279,000 line item for "caulking." Unless labor and materials are both included in that number, that's a heck of a lot of white goop! Rather than demand proof of exact material costs, assessors will sometimes allocate material costs based on a pre-established rule of thumb.

Substantially Complete?

Now for the tricky part. The new construction statute allows assessors to pick up new improvements after Jan. 1, so long as the structure is "substantially complete" prior to Sept. 1 that same year. So, for example, if a building is 50 percent complete at Jan. 1 and 100 percent complete at Sept. 1, the assessor will prorate at the 50 percent value for eight months of the year, and at the 100 percent value for four months of the year. If the improvements are not "substantially complete" by Sept. 1, the assessor must wait to pick up the as-complete value in the following year.

Tennessee has no statutory definition of "substantially complete" for purposes of adding the full value to the tax rolls, but cases make it clear that tenant finish-out and certificates of occupancy are not required. In the absence of simple, objective standards for completion, assessors make subjective judgments about completion that may not favor the taxpayer. Taxpayers can challenge those judgments through an administrative appeal.

Adding Insult to Injury

Under Tennessee law, new improvements may not be valued as incomplete for more than one year after construction began. Now, your immediate reaction might be, "That's ridiculous! How can you value an incomplete property as complete just because it took longer than 12 months to construct!?"

The assessor in Davidson County has taken the position that the statute prevents them from using the taxpayer-favorable, materials-only value in the second year a property is incomplete. They will likely still use the cost approach to determine the appraised value but add back the cost of labor that was taken out in the first year, greatly increasing the tax burden before the property is generating income. The legislature has not acted to provide relief from this further insult to developers already injured by increasingly protracted construction timelines.

The Good News

Tennessee assessors are only authorized to reassess a property at specific times, but taxpayers can appeal the assessor's Jan. 1 value of Nashville property to the Metropolitan Board of Equalization every year. If the assessor issues a prorated assessment for a new construction project later in the year, the taxpayer can appeal that value directly to the State Board of Equalization.

In light of the complexity of Tennessee's law on the assessment of new construction, owners of new projects in Nashville should seek counsel as to whether their assessments are fair and legal and avail themselves of the right to appeal if appropriate.

Drew Raines is a shareholder in the Memphis law firm of Evans Petree PC, the Arkansas and Tennessee member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.
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