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Use Quality Data to Fight Unfair Tax Assessments

Owners appealing unfair tax assessments must aggressively and specifically examine the general economic climate.

"While area bankers express high hopes for the coming year, that optimism is not reflected in actual lending practices for the past year. According to the St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank, commercial and industrial loan volume in the United States totaled $16.4 billion in 2012, up slightly from $14 billion in 2011."

By accident or design, assessors tend to punish commercial property owners by increasing the assessed value of properties that outperform the market, thereby generating more taxes for the local government. The problem arises from real property valuations based upon a cash flow analysis, which fails to take into account intangible qualities that boost cash flow but are unconnected to intrinsic real estate value.

Intangible qualities that can increase a commercial property's cash flow include the skills of the management and general business reputation of the owners. Assessors have a tendency to value the business rather than the real property. Consequently, assessors punish owners for efficient and successful management. In order to guard against such an outcome, owners appealing unfair tax assessments must aggressively and specifically examine the general economic climate. In analyzing commercial property, appraisers dedicate pages within each appraisal report to the local economy. Time after time, appellate reviewers in their rush to focus on the cash flow of the specific property simply skip over the plethora of general economic data that fills appraisal reports.

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Two measures of local market performance are particularly important in appealing an assessment, however. One metric is retail sales, which provide a clear barometer of general economic conditions. Sales reflect the health of the consumer base and, most notably, employment. With diminished employment, sales fall in the marketplace. The other dataset to examine is the availability of credit for commercial property acquisition and/or development. While valuation authorities rarely acknowledge the relationship, retail sales and credit are inextricably linked.

Follow Sales Tax Receipts

A look at retail sales and availability of credit in the St. Louis marketplace provides a far better foundation for value analysis than do the population counts and various economic facts tacked onto assessors' reports.

In the city of St. Louis, total sales tax receipts increased every year from 2008 through 2012, with just a slight decline in 2010 (see chart). In 2013, however, the trend's trajectory has changed. The city of St. Louis has collected $30.7 million in sales tax receipts year-to-date through May, down 4.9 percent from $32.3 million during the same period a year ago.

Annual sales tax receipts for 2013 in St. Louis based were previously projected to reach just over $120 million based on the actual receipts for the first five months of 2013 and previous years' receipts during the last seven months of the year. However, the closing of a Macy's store in downtown St. Louis in May will dim this picture even further. Banks are feeling regulatory pressure to lower the concentration of commercial real estate loans in their portfolios. Lending to acquire or develop commercial buildings or residential subdivisions tanked during the Great Recession. Today, lenders give more scrutiny to a potential borrower's creditworthiness than before the downturn. The credit quality of borrowers or developers has in many respects become an important factor in the intrinsic value of the project or the real estate itself.

While area bankers express high hopes for the coming year, that optimism is not reflected in actual lending practices for the past year. According to the St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank, commercial and industrial loan volume in the United States totaled $16.4 billion in 2012, up slightly from $14 billion in 2011. Compared to the market's peak loan volume of $26 billion originated in 2008, credit availability in the sector is clearly constrained.

Focus On Fair Market Value

Property owners should keep in mind that the determination of fair market value is based upon not only a willing seller, but also a willing buyer. A willing buyer must obtain financing, and the St. Louis market has tightened up considerably in that regard. A tax appeal based on the scrutiny of credit availability and retail sales will go a long way toward ensuring that careful, prudent entrepreneurship and management will go unpunished by an excessive tax burden.

Wallach90 Jerome Wallach is a partner at The Wallach Law Firm, the Missouri member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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