Local and state governments are expected to see annual revenues decline by between 4.7 percent and 5.7 percent over the next three years, excluding fees to hospitals and higher education, according to Brookings. But most vital government functions continue, and soon, counties will assess property values to prepare property tax bills for 2021. They expect timely payment. They also should expect a flood of appeals to lower property values, says Linda Terrill, president of the American Property Tax Counsel and a partner with the Property Tax Law Group, who spoke with SCT contributing editor Joe Gose.
How do you anticipate 2021 property tax assessments unfolding?
The good assessors know that a decline is coming and will try to make some serious examinations to see whether they need to come in at a different number from the prior year. My cynical view is that when there is an increase in value, they're very quick to notice it but if it's a decrease, there's a lag before they notice it.
It sounds like you expect a lot of appeals. What can property owners do to prepare for one?
Planning is the key to everything. You need to find out the state requirements for when you can file and who can file to make it legal — some states require corporations to be represented by legal counsel, some don't – and you need to know the state's definition of market value. You also need to get ahead of the curve and begin interviewing professionals who can help you, especially appraisers, before all the good ones are representing others. It's best to find an appraiser that does property tax or condemnation work.
What is the most important element in an appeal?
The highest and best use analysis. A lot of appraisers would confess that they go into an analysis thinking that the current use is indeed the highest and best use, but I don't think they can assume that anymore. Property owners need to tell their appraisers to really do the work and math because as of Jan. 1, 2021, the highest and best use of a shopping mall charging $20 per square foot in rent might now be a fulfillment center charging $5 per square foot. Or maybe it's an adaptive reuse that includes converting part of the mall to office or adding apartments.
How might declining rental rates influence an appeal?
Shopping center owners can make a terrific argument that if they had to lease space on Jan. 1, 2021, the current contract rent would have no reflection at all on market rent. There are an awful lot of leases being renegotiated and amended that will have to be considered, even though they might not get done before Jan. 1. Property owners need to put a trail of paperwork together to tell a good story. That means keeping correspondence with tenants to show the back-and-forth of what's happening and whether or not they are staying.
Is there anything property owners can do to reset to a more appropriate value prior to an appeal?
The best bet is to see if you can work something out early, particularly if you're a shopping center that is historically a top provider of tax receipts in your jurisdiction. You might want to start talking to the county assessor now and see if you can get a better result when the values come out in 2021. I don't know of any assessor that wouldn't welcome the opportunity to have a legitimate discussion about what's happening and come to a number. Many states also have a local-level appeal that you go through before going to court or an administrative body. In either case, you may have to settle for something less than what you would like, but if it helps keep you afloat, then it's a good outcome.
How long does a typical appeals process take?
If you're in [my state of] Kansas and want a hearing in 2021, you're not going to get one anytime soon because we haven't had any in 2020 yet. Thousands of cases are backed up, and I think there are many states in a similar situation. Counties are going to want to hire more people to handle these cases, but at the same time, they're going to be laying off people because of budgets. For all those reasons, it's going be impossible to come to a resolution quickly.