Insights into managing real property tax liabilities in the nation's capital.

After the tumult and disruptions of 2020, the last thing taxpayers need is another surprise. Our society craves predictability more than ever before, and commercial real estate owners want predictability in their property taxes. 

In the District of Columbia, commercial real estate owners keen to make their future expenses more predictable can start by familiarizing themselves with the full gamut of real property liabilities. In addition to the standard annual property tax, the District imposes a variety of charges on real estate that vary by the property's location, use and payment history. 

Managing these real estate charges can help a taxpayer budget for upcoming expenses and minimize the risk of incurring unplanned costs. What follows is a primer to help taxpayers manage real property tax liabilities in the District: 

Start with the basics 

The DC Office of Tax and Revenue (OTR) recently launched MyTax. DC.gov, a new taxpayer website intended to streamline the tax assessment and billing processes. This single portal offers insight into taxes on individual income, businesses and real property, as well as fees administered by OTR. 

The site features self-service tools that enable taxpayers to review and pay property tax bills online, view assessment histories, apply for tax relief benefits, request mailing address changes and submit mixed-use declarations, among other features. While this centralized system should help to organize the billing and payment processes, it offers little information about the District's fees and may leave owners still wondering: What are these charges? 

The BID tax 

Many commercial property owners in the District incur a business improvement district (BID) tax. The District defines a business improvement district as "a self-taxing district established by property owners to enhance the economic vitality of a specific commercial area." Each of the District's 11 BIDs assess a surcharge to the real property tax liability, which the District collects and then returns to the BID. Each BID dictates how it spends its funds, typically supporting the community with programs promoting cleanliness, maintenance, safety and economic development. 

The DC Code establishes BIDs and their geographic boundaries. These provisions empower each BID to establish its tax rates. How those taxes are calculated varies by BID. For example, an individual district may base its tax on the number of rooms in a hotel, a building's square footage and a percentage of the tax assessment value. Thankfully, these organizations often have robust, informative websites that can be useful resources for property owners. 

As with real property taxes, a property owner that fails to pay its BID tax on time and in full can incur penalties and interest charges on its tax account. Therefore, mismanaging a property's BID tax can lead to pricey consequences. 

Public space or vault rent 

To optimize the operation of an asset, many property owners rent-adjacent, District-owned space known as "public space." The District categorizes these offerings as either "vault space," which is below ground level; or above-ground "café space." Examples include outdoor café space, above or below-grade parking and areas for storage of utilities. 

The formula for calculating vault rent is Land Rate x Vault Area x Vault Rate. Therefore, changes in a property's taxable land assessment value will result in a change in the rental charge for associated public space. Unlike BID taxes, public-space rent is charged to the renter as a separate bill. This requires extra attention to avoid those pesky penalty and interest charges. 

Special assessments 

A variety of supplementary special assessments may arise to fund city-wide projects. Examples of these charges include a ballpark fee, Southeast Water and Sewer Improvement fee and the New York Avenue fee. The levy of these assessments is governed by specific criteria set forth in the related DC Code provision. 

Given the often-complex nature of the code, taxpayers may choose to consult a tax or legal professional to help navigate these less-common levies. 

Credits 

A credit on a property owner's tax account will likely come as a welcomed surprise, but the taxpayer should give these circumstances the same scrutiny they would give to unexpected charges. Understand that a credit is not free money, nor is it always an accurate designation. 

If a credit appears on the account, it will likely stem from a prior overpayment. This may reflect a reduction in tax liability that occurred after a bill was issued. Other possible causes include a DC Superior Court Refund Order, a dual payment from a third-party vendor or a prepayment of the full year tax liability on a first-half tax bill. 

Before enjoying the benefit of the lowered tax liability, it is important to verify this credit is justified. If the credit was wrongfully applied, a taxpayer will still be liable for the remaining balance. The District may issue a corrected bill for the outstanding amount, or the balance may appear on a future tax bill. A failure to remedy this balance can once again lead to penalty and interest charges. 

Penalties and interest 

The most unwanted surprise charges are penalties and interest. These charges can arise under several circumstances such as when the taxpayer has failed to file a yearly income and expense form with the District, or after missed, late or incomplete payments. 

Penalties and interest can cause a headache for taxpayers. The District will apply any future payment to penalties and interest before the account's principal balance. Therefore, it is easy for a small charge to cause a cascading liability if it is not timely addressed. In addition, while a taxpayer may petition for these charges to be waived, this process is often lengthy and the issuance of such a waiver is at the sole discretion of the OTR. 

The prospect of navigating these charges may seem overwhelming but it is a vital part of owning and managing real estate in the District. Therefore, it is best to learn the tax rules or consult with a local tax attorney who has experience dealing with these issues, as well as with the corresponding governmental entities. A knowledgeable expert can sort through this complicated web of liabilities, penalties and errors.

Sydney Bardouil is an associate at the law firm, Wilkes Artis, the District of Columbia member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.