Indiana has become the latest battleground in the debate over how assessors should value retail real estate and other commercial properties for property tax purposes. The debate’s conclusion will likely affect owners of retail, office and even industrial properties in Indiana, and may affect taxpayers grappling with similar issues in other states.
At the heart of the debate is the question of what assessors should value under Indiana’s market value-in-use standard. Though that term can seem somewhat puzzling, the Indiana Supreme Court has stated that any valuation standard must be based on objective data while also protecting Indiana taxpayers who choose to use their properties at something less than full market potential.
How is market value in-use different from market value? In many if not most situations, they are identical. Where a property is being used for its highest and best use, the property’s market value-in-use will be the same as its market value.
Because a property can be used for something less than its highest and best use, however, its market value-in-use may be lower than its market value. This is the case in the example of agricultural land surrounded by commercial development.
A property cannot be used for something greater than its highest and best use, however; by definition, nothing is higher or better than the highest and best use. Accordingly, a property’s market value-in-use cannot exceed its market value.
Importantly, market value-in-use does not mean the value to the individual user. This distinction may seem like mere semantics, but how the state defines market value-in-use affects many commercial taxpayers. A series of Indiana cases show why.
Since at least 2010, when the Indiana Tax Court issued a pair of decisions addressing the meaning of market value-in-use, Indiana has recognized that market value-in-use as determined by objectively verifiable market data, is the value of a property for its use, not the value of its use to the particular user.
Indiana courts also recognize that in markets where both buyers and sellers frequently exchange and use properties for the same general purpose, a sale often indicates value. The Indiana Board of Tax Review has affirmed and applied these rulings in subsequent cases, including a pair of decisions issued in December 2014 involving big-box retail stores.
These decisions followed longstanding precedent from the Indiana’s Tax Court and kept Indiana in line with the overwhelming majority of other states that have considered the question. Had the board instead agreed with the assessors’ interpretation of market value-in-use as being the value of the use, it would potentially have created a number of anomalous outcomes, including similar properties being assessed differently based on the property owners’ characteristics and not on the properties’ characteristics.
Following the board’s decisions, local governments petitioned the Indiana legislature to change the valuation standard for commercial properties. After a heated debate, legislators left the market value-in-use standard unchanged but amended the property tax statute to modify the evidence available to prove a property’s value, based on the facts of the case.
It is too early to know the full ramifications of the new statute. Assessors’ repeated attacks on the market value-in-use standard, however, will produce one certain result, Taxpayers that own property in Indiana or are considering doing business there will face increasing uncertainty. For that reason, taxpayers must monitor their assessments to ensure fairness as the debate continues.