Utah taxpayers could soon be required to conduct an item-by-item appraisal of personal property in order to contest its taxable value if Utah assessors have their way. Utah imposes property tax on a business' tangible personal property based upon the personal property's fair market value. Fair market value means the value a knowledgeable, willing buyer would pay a knowledgeable, willing seller for the property operating at its highest and best use.
The taxable value of a business' personal property is self-reported and self-assessed using state guidelines. Every year, a business must submit a signed personal property statement to each county in which it owns property. These statements must include the year of acquisition and purchase price for each item of personal property. The taxpayer then multiplies the prices by a provided percent-good factor to determine its estimated fair market value.
Unfortunately, simply applying the percent-good factor does not always equal the property's fair market value. For example, there may be additional functional or economic obsolescence for which the percent-good factors do not account. Consequently, a taxpayer is allowed to dispute the resulting value.
Some taxing jurisdictions, however, have recently argued that taxpayers may only dispute the resulting value if they prepare an item-by-item appraisal, rather than valuing all the personal property subject to tax as a group or operating unit.
Utah State Tax Commission to Decide
In a case pending before the Utah State Tax Commission, the taxpayer disputed the assessed value of its personal property, arguing that such property suffered from functional and economic obsolescence above that accounted for in the percent-good factors. Consequently, the taxpayer argued that its property was valued above fair market value.
In challenging the value, the tax-payer had an appraisal performed. The appraiser determined that the personal property would most likely be sold as a group of assets operating together, and thus valued the personal property as an operating unit. While the appraisal looked at every piece of personal property, the valuation reflected its aggregate value rather than values placed on each specific piece of personal property. Likewise, in applying obsolescence adjustments, the appraiser applied them to the whole, rather than to specific items of personal property.
The county which imposed the tax argued that such an appraisal was improper and deficient because it failed to appoint a value to each item of personal property separately, and as a result, the taxpayer did not meet its burden of proving that the personal property was over-assessed.
The county's argument appears to lack any precedent. The Utah Constitution and the Utah Code only require that property be valued at its fair market value operating at its highest and best use. The highest and best use value for the separate items of tangible personal property in this case was achieved when the properties were viewed as operating together as a unit. Furthermore, the Utah Constitution and Utah Code do not mandate itemized valuations.
In a 2011 case (T-Mobile USA Inc. vs. Utah State Tax Commission), the Utah Supreme Court stated that "the code simply provides that property shall be assessed by the Commission at 100 percent of fair market value. Requiring the Tax Court to use a specific valuation method ignores the reality that certain methodologies are not always accurate in every circumstance."
In the case pending before the Commission today, a ruling in favor of the taxing entity would drastically change the manner in which a taxpayer is to dispute the value of its personal property. Whereas now, there is no specific method that must be followed in order to determine the fair market value. If the Commission rules in favor of the taxing entity, taxpayers would be required to separately value each item of personal property listed on its personal property signed statement. Then tax-payers would have to add those values together to derive the value estimate for all of the personal property regardless of whether that summation is the fair market value at which the personal property would likely sell.
A ruling in favor of the taxpayer, however, maintains the status quo and further emphasizes that the standard for valuation in Utah is fair market value. So long as that is achieved, it does not matter which valuation method is used.
A decision from the Utah State Tax Commission is expected later this year.