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Jul
16

Some Justice for Taxpayers

How a Compelling, Well-Prepared Property Tax Appeal Can Defeat An Unlawfully Excessive Assessment

" A compelling case that is well presented gives the taxpayer the best chance at success."

It's no secret to taxpayers that appealing property tax assessments can be challenging. Typically, taxpayers bear both the burden of proof and the risk of a decision that not only protects government revenue but also ignores the facts and applicable law. Nevertheless, sometimes a compelling and well-prepared property tax appeal can result in tax justice.

A 2013 Michigan Tax Tribunal decision exemplifies the potential for achieving a fair outcome. In this case, the tribunal determined the market value of an apartment complex with 779 units. The analysis was substantially the same for both tax years involved, so just the first valuation date is discussed here.

The taxpayer claimed that the property was worth less than $13,400 per unit. Based on sales of apartments in the area, on an absolute and relative basis, this is a low value for an apartment property in the subject market. To prevail, the taxpayer had to carefully present its case using three essential components:

  • A convincing explanation of why the subject property's per-unit value was so low;
  • A well-reasoned appraisal based upon both the income approach and sales comparison approach, which demonstrated that the property was worth what the taxpayer contended and refuted the contentions and analysis of the government's assessor and appraiser; and
  • Legal authorities whose testimony supported the taxpayer's position.
  • The taxpayer needed each of these three ingredients to achieve total victory. It would have been insufficient for the taxpayer to have simply presented an appraisal that reached value conclusions supporting their contentions. In recent years, there have been numerous cases where the tribunal found taxpayer-filed appraisals to be flawed and unpersuasive.

Winning the Case

The taxpayer gave a compelling explanation for the property's low value. In this case, the property's one- and two-bedroom units averaged a mere 581 square feet. The onebedroom units, which comprised more than 70 percent of the apartments, were only 550 square feet. Those measurements were far smaller than those of the area's other apartment complexes, which averaged 750 and 850 square feet for one- and two-bedroom units, respectively.

As the owner explained to the tribunal, the original developer had built the units decades before to serve relatively unskilled young adults working in area factories. The small unit sizes made the apartments affordable for these first-time renters.

The Great Recession reduced demand for all types of apartments, which hurt occupancy and rental rates for the entire apartment market. This economic obsolescence adversely impacted the subject property's value. Further, the recession negatively impacted the subject property far more than other apartment properties because the huge downturn eliminated so many factory jobs for relatively young and unskilled workers. As those jobs disappeared, so did single renters who wanted small units, saddling the property with enormous functional obsolescence.

Given these explanations of the property's deficiencies, the judge could readily accept that even when occupancy improved and became stabilized, the complex would have above-market vacancy and would be limited in the rents it could charge, while forcing the owner to bear most of the utility costs.
These facts were an integral part of the direct capitalization income approach in the taxpayer's appraisal. In this income approach, the appraiser first determined the property's net operating income with occupancy that had reached a stabilized level. This required providing and analyzing the income and expenses of comparable properties as well as the subject property's financial results in recent calendar years. The appraiser applied an appropriate capitalization rate to the stabilized net operating income to determine the property's value as stabilized. The appraiser then subtracted the costs of rent concessions and lost rents the property would experience as it increased occupancy to a higher stabilized level.

In the sales comparison approach, the appraiser presented sales of six comparable properties, and where applicable, made adjustments for numerous elements of comparison, including location and age. Significantly, the appraiser's analysis included not only the commonly used per-apartment unit basis but also a per-square-foot analysis.

The appraiser gave some weight to this sales comparison approach but relied primarily on the income approach. Their testimony, supported by testimony of one of the taxpayer's senior managers, not only satisfied the taxpayer's burden of proof but presented a compelling case.

Having heard this powerful evidence, during the cross-examination of the government's witnesses, it was easier for the judge to see the flaws in the assessor's income and sales comparison approaches. Also, the taxpayer's counsel was able to cite a legal precedent to refute the government's cost approach, which ignored functional and economic obsolescence.

Ultimately, the tribunal rejected the government's value contention, which was 50 percent higher than the taxpayer's, and adopted the taxpayer's claimed value.
For taxpayers who are inexperienced in handling property tax appeals, these cases can be fraught with pitfalls that result in excessive taxation and exasperating endings. A compelling case that is well presented, however, gives the taxpayer the best chance at success. And as this case shows, there are times when tax justice is indeed attainable.

MANDELL Stewart

Stewart L. Mandell is a partner in the law firm of Honigman Miller Schwartz and Cohn L.L.P., the Michigan member of the 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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Aug
23

Controversy Emerges Over Michigan Business Tax Credits for Industrial Owners

"The tax credits threaten to reduce tax revenue to the state. To minimize lost revenue, taxing entities are attempting to limit use of the tax credits for industrial personal property by seeking to reclassify many of those assets as commercial..."

By Michael Shapiro, Esq., as published by National Real Estate Investor - online, August 2010

Detroit, along with the rest of Michigan is wrestling with two major tax issues that frequently involve litigation and have costly implications for owners of commercial and industrial properties. The first issue relates to the fact that the applicable tax statute in Michigan treats industrial properties differently than office, retail, hotel and other commercial properties.

tax-char 08-20

Starting with the 2008 tax year, the Michigan legislature granted Michigan Business Tax credits to owners of industrial personal property. These credits are intended to offset property taxes and reduce the tax rate levied on industrial personal property.

As the accompanying chart indicates, for the 2009 tax year, Detroit's rate for commercial personal property was $70.92 per $1,000 taxable value (generally 50% of market value). Meanwhile, the personal industrial property rate was $59.14 per $1,000, effectively reduced to $38.44 per $1,000 by the Michigan Business Tax credits.

The tax credits threaten to reduce tax revenue to the state. To minimize lost revenue, taxing entities are attempting to limit use of the tax credits for industrial personal property by seeking to reclassify many of those assets as commercial.

The Michigan Department of Treasury recently announced that it filed almost 10,000 property tax classification cases affecting 2009 property taxes. In addition, state officials have encouraged local communities to file classification appeals in the State Tax Commission for 2010, all with the intent of changing property classifications from industrial personal property to commercial personal property.

Raw deal for industrial owners

Many of the actions have been initiated by the state or local jurisdiction based solely on the name of the owner, and without regard to the actual use of the property or the property's legal classification. If a company's name is Joe's Manufacturing, it will not have a classification action brought against it, whereas Joe's Warehouse will be the subject of such an action.

Because the law involved is relatively new, most taxpayers receiving notice of these appeals have little to no idea what the action involves.

At the heart of the issue is the definition of industrial personal property, and the statute is reasonably clear that personal property located on industrial real property is industrial personal property.

Notwithstanding the statute, the state and State Tax Commission claim that the use of personal property governs its classification and that personal property has to be used for manufacturing or processing in order to be deemed industrial. There is nothing in the applicable statute to support that position, however.

The classification appeals recently filed make it apparent that the state and State Tax Commission recognize their claims may not prevail. As a result, in more recent filings they are seeking to change the classification of the underlying real estate from industrial to commercial.

It appears that most actions by the State Tax Commission and the State have been taken without any property specifics other than the name of the owner. If those reclassifications succeed, then the personal property at the site would also be redefined as commercial and not industrial personal property.

Taxpayers affected by such actions should consult with competent property tax counsel for advice on whether to defend such claims and, if so, how to proceed. In some instances, the government may have missed a critical deadline, which will give taxpayers an additional basis for prevailing.

Backlog of appeals

The second source of property tax litigation in Detroit and other Michigan communities is shared by thousands of property owners across the country. Nearly everywhere in the United States, property values are depressed by as much as 40% or more from where they were before the onset of the recession in December 2007.

And just like local governments in other states, Michigan's taxing entities are strapped for cash and reluctant to voluntarily lower valuations to reflect current market conditions. It's no surprise that thousands of property owners have appealed assessments in hopes of lowering their property tax bills.

What may be surprising to property owners who haven't already filed an appeal is that an unprecedented deluge of valuation protests has slowed down the panel that reviews them. As of July 31, there were approximately 2,600 non-small-claims cases pending before the Michigan Tax Tribunal for the 2008 tax year, and another 5,600 cases for 2009. Approximately 3,900 such new cases have been filed in 2010.

The tax tribunal recently adopted new procedures and is laboring to reduce this backlog and expedite the time it takes cases to move from filing to resolution. Most property tax practitioners applaud the tribunal's recent efforts in this regard. Even so, for anyone considering an appeal, it makes sense to start the process sooner rather than later and get in line to have the case heard.

SHAPIRO_Michael2008Michael Shapiro chairs the tax appeals practice group at Michigan law firm Honigman Miller Schwartz and Cohn LLP. The firm is the Michigan 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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