Property Tax Resources


Recent Cases Affirm Tax-Exempt Status of Intangible Value

Whether a business is a seniors housing facility, a racetrack or other service-oriented operation - or even a manufacturing plant - part of the business’ value may be intangible and exempt from property tax. Recent court cases underscore this critical premise and provide valuable reference points for taxpayers struggling against unfair tax practices.

Local governments in all states have authority to impose property tax on the value of real estate. Local governments in all but seven states also impose property tax on the value of at least some tangible personal property, or property that can be moved, such as equipment.

But in most states, local authorities are prohibited from taxing any additional value of a business as a going concern, meaning value attributable to a brand, reputation for product quality, intensive management, licenses, contractual rights, proprietary technology, and other intangible assets.

For example, if a manufacturing plant receives additional revenue because it packages items with a well-known brand’s label instead of a generic one, that brand is an intangible asset. In numerous cases it has been seen that the value of intangible assets equal or exceed the value of the taxable property. Whatever the business, removing intangible assets from the property tax bill is key.

California tests intangibles

Some states provide clearer guidance than others on identifying and quantifying intangible assets. California, in particular, has been a hotbed of controversy over the treatment of intangibles in valuation for tax purposes lately.

Stephen Davis, a partner in the Los Angeles law firm of Cahill, Davis & O’Neall, summed up the latest developments during a presentation at the Seattle Chapter of the Appraisal Institute Fall Real Estate Conference in October by saying that major cases in the last two years capped two decades of controversy. He should know, since his firm was counsel of record in the SHC Half Moon Bay vs. County of San Mateo case, decided in May 2014. Davis commented that the result of this new case law has been “a few new controversies instead of a clean resolution,” but much was resolved favourably for taxpayers and provided helpful lessons that should apply anywhere in the nation.

The main takeaway from California’s recent cases is the importance of an appraisal of each intangible asset in order to deduct that value from the overall business value.

In SHC Half Moon Bay vs. County of San Mateo, the four-star Ritz Carlton Half Moon Bay Hotel proved that the assessor inappropriately included in the hotel’s taxable value approximately $2.8 million of exempt value attributable to its workforce and to contractual rights involving a parking lot and golf course. Granting a significant victory to taxpayers, the appeals court made clear that merely subtracting franchise fees from the value indicated by the income approach to value did not account for the value of the hotel’s franchise rights and other goodwill.

What does that mean for taxpayers? Under this case, an appraisal that provides evidence of the value of each intangible asset should result in removing those intangible values from property tax assessments. The reasoning espoused in this decision from California should apply in any state where intangible property is exempt from property tax.

For example, just last year the Montana Supreme Court declared invalid a Montana Department of Revenue regulation that attempted to narrow that state’s broad exemption for intangibles, such as by requiring valuation of goodwill only by the accounting method.

A growing volume of cases argues for valuing the intangible assets of a wide range of businesses by using generally accepted appraisal practices, bolstering the position of taxpayers defending themselves against unfair taxation of those assets.

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MDeLappe Bruns Norman J. Bruns and Michelle DeLappe are attorneys in the Seattle office of Garvey Schubert Barer, where they specialize in state and local tax. Bruns is the Idaho and Washington representative of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys. Bruns can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. DeLappe can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..
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New York Tax Uncertainty

The future of New York City's 421-a tax exemption is highly uncertain, particularly in light of the election of Mayor Bill de Blasio, whose initiatives appear to call for sweeping changes to the program.

The 421-a program, which is scheduled to expire on June 14, 2015, provides substantial real estate tax exemption benefits for the developers of new multifamily buildings. Currently, the city determines the level of exemption provided to an eligible building under 421-a; that determination is based on a geographical and functional basis.

That could change under de Blasio's proposed "Five-Borough, 10-Year Plan." The proposal, relating to the creation or preservation of 200,000 units of affordable housing, frequently references the 421-a program, alluding to its future presence in the real estate market.

The city created the 421-a program in 1971 to encourage multifamily construction by granting a partial tax exemption for the property owner. In 2008, changes to the program had a prospective effect on 421-a projects. These modifications included a dramatic expansion of the Geographical Exclusion Areas (GEA), in which properties must meet additional requirements to qualify for an exemption. The amended laws eliminated as-of-right, or automatic, benefits for new multifamily construction throughout Manhattan. In addition, significant sections of the outer boroughs became part of the GEA, effective for buildings that commenced construction after June 30, 2008.

The law created exceptions for projects within the GEA to obtain a tax exemption. To qualify, at least 20 percent of the units must be affordable to families whose income at initial occupancy does not exceed 6o percent of the area median income adjusted for family size. In addition, projects located in a GEA could qualify for benefits via the purchase of negotiable certificates. Under the negotiable certificates program, affordable housing developers can sell negotiable certificates to market-rate developers, who use the certificates to access tax abatements.

Hints of Change

Based on Mayor de Blasio's proposal, the percentage of affordable housing required per project may increase to provide for more affordable units.

The proposal highlights the establishment of a new, mandatory Inclusionary Housing Program, which will serve a broader range of New Yorkers with varying income levels. The Inclusionary Housing Program offers an optional floor area bonus to developers of new residential buildings, in exchange for the creation or preservation of affordable housing.

The new residential housing can be onsite or offsite, so long as it is within the same community board jurisdiction or within a half-mile radius of the site receiving the floor area compensation. The program seeks to promote economic integration in areas of the city undergoing significant new residential development. In order to qualify under the current Inclusionary Housing Program, the affordable units must be affordable to households at or below 80 percent of the area median income.

In contrast to the current Inclusionary Housing Program, some observers speculate that the mayor's proposed program would require all developers to put aside at least 20 percent of their units for low-income families. These units would then remain permanently affordable.

Currently, developers are able to layer 421-a benefits on top of inclusionary housing benefits, therefore allowing developers to take advantage of both programs. By allowing this double-dipping of benefits, the city creates a greater incentive for developers to provide onsite affordable housing.

However, de Blasio's plan may change the way developers use multiple subsidy programs together. The proposal states that in situations where a developer pursues multiple subsidies, the city will increase the percentage of affordable units required for eligibility and/or require that the developer provide deeper affordability.

No automatic exemptions?

Some observers have speculated that the mayor's plan may expand the GEAs of the city and reduce, if not completely eliminate, any as-of-right areas for 421-a construction. As Manhattan is already a GEA, this proposal would affect those areas in the outer boroughs that were not classified as GEAs in 2008. Moreover, developers in the expanded GEAs would be required to provide a higher percentage of affordable units (some proposals call for as much as 50 percent affordability) and offer apartments to families at 40 percent to 50 percent of area median income.

Proposed changes to the program also include eliminating some of the strict requirements that developers must meet in order to receive a 421-a Certificate of Eligibility. For example, under the current program, a qualifying property must meet one of the following three conditions:

  • All affordable units must have a comparable number of bedrooms to the market rate units, and a unit mix proportional to the market rate units. Or
  • At least go percent of the affordable units must have two or more bedrooms, and no more than go percent of the remaining units can be smaller than one bedroom. Or
  • The floor area of affordable units is no less than 20 percent of the total floor area of all dwelling units.

Mayor de Blasio's proposal seeks to modify or eliminate what the administration terms inefficient regulations," since existing requirements may force developers to build larger units than the market dictates.

Overall, the filing process to receive a Certificate of Eligibility is time consuming, due to regulations such as the unit distribution requirement. Mayor de Blasio's proposal states that it seeks to "streamline the 421-a program, improving its usefulness to developers and its ability to promote affordability, by eliminating outdated and unnecessary programmatic, eligibility, and oversight requirements."

JoelMarcusJoel R. Marcus is a partner in the New York City law firm of Marcus & Pollack LLP, the New York City member of American Property Tax Counsel (APTC), 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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Does a Property's Sale Price Really Equal the Taxable Market Value

The question arises all too often: Is the recent sale price of a property the best evidence of the property's taxable value?

Basic appraisal principles dictate that market value is the price upon which a willing buyer and willing seller would agree. Coming out of the recent recession, however, assessors continue to question whether the purchase prices paid for commercial or industrial properties reflect the properties' market value.

The confusion derives from the distressed sales that dominated commercial real estate transaction activity during the recession. As tenants defaulted on leases and property incomes plummeted, many owners were either compelled to sell their real estate in order to avoid foreclosure, or gave their underwater properties back to lenders. A number of lenders simply sold those assets after foreclosure at liquidation prices, adding to the volume of sales at distressed pricing levels.

Where the majority of sales of similar types of property are distressed, those sales may become the market, establishing pricing even for non-distressed sellers. To assert a higher taxable value on a property in this scenario, the assessor would have to demonstrate that these sales defy current economic conditions.

Now, as the country's economy begins to improve and property owners remain cautiously optimistic that the recession is ending, which recent sales truly represent market value? It is a challenging question for property owners and assessors seeking to use recent transactions for sales comparisons in order to determine current market value and taxable value of a property.

In many parts of the country, there was a complete dearth of sales and little construction activity during the downturn. In those areas, the sale of a property may have been the only transaction that occurred in that market in several years, with no other sales available for comparison.

With the uptick in the economy, assessors are latching onto recent transactions as fully indicative of a new market, and are inflating assessed taxable values in the process. Distinguishing the value indicated by a property's sale price remains vital to having it correctly assessed.

One reason that evaluating a sale for tax purposes requires more than just looking at the closing price is that the sale price may reflect financial incentives and tax-exempt components included to motivate the buyer or seller. For example, sale prices paid for restaurants, hotels, nursing homes and some industrial plants may reflect the value of the business enterprise, as opposed to just the real estate.

In Oregon, California and Washington, many intangible assets may be exempt from taxation for most properties. Thus, for purposes of determining the property's taxable market value, the appraiser or assessor must determine and exclude the value of the intangible rights relating to the business.

In Oregon, properties other than those used in power generation or other utility services may have tax-exempt intangible assets including goodwill, customer contract rights, patents, trademarks, copyrights, an assembled labor force, or trade secrets. Properly separating real estate value from the business enterprise value can substantially reduce the assessed value.

Additionally, an often overlooked influence on the sale price may be the existence of a sale- leaseback provision. In Oregon and many other states, real market value for tax purposes involves a willing seller and willing buyer in an open-market transaction, without consideration of the actual leases in place.

Thus, in the sale of a building fully leased to an ongoing enterprise that sets the buyer's anticipated rate of return, the assessor must extract the existing lease value and instead apply market lease and occupancy rates to arrive at the real market value for taxation purposes. In other words, whether the leases in place at a sold property are at, above, or below market rates affects the relationship of its sale price to taxable value.

Assessment requires more than simply assuming that the sale price is the sole indicator of value. For a vacant property, the sale price may be the best indicator of value. But any transaction used to establish market value for tax purposes needs to be thoroughly vetted. Taxpayers should keep these principles in mind when reviewing the assessor's process to set the taxable value of their real estate.

CfraserCynthia M. Fraser is a partner at the law firm Garvey Schubert Barer where she specializes in property tax and condemnation litigation. Ms. Fraser is the Oregon representative of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys. Ms. Fraser can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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Protecting Taxpayers: Indiana Shifts Burden of Proof to Assessors

A recent legal change in Indiana has created a model for property tax reform across the country. Starting in 2011, the Hoosier State has compelled assessing officials to defend excessive assessment increases with objective evidence and meaningful arguments in appeals.

The statute applies whenever the appealed property's value has increased by more than 5 percent over its prior year's value. Moreover, where the prior year's value was reduced on appeal and the reduction was not based on the income approach, the assessor now has the burden of proof to support any increase. Failure to defend the assessment automatically reduces the property's assessment to the prior year's level, and the taxpayer can press to further reduce the value.

Assessors on the defensive

This simple change gives Indiana taxpayers greater protections in appeals than taxpayers have in most other jurisdictions. Why? With no burden of proof on appeal, an assessor may contend that her value is presumed correct. Instead of explaining how she derived a property's value, the assessor may attempt only to discredit the taxpayer's case.

With the burden of proof, however, the assessor must produce probative evidence and logical arguments to support her value. She must explain why her assessment meets the jurisdiction's valuation standard. She must walk the local or state tribunal through her analysis. In short, she must explain how she did her job and produce evidence justifying her increased valuation.

An assessor that fails in those steps will likely lose. To avoid the time, expense and potential embarrassment of a loss, the assessor who carries the burden of proof is more likely to settle a case.

Limits on burden-shifting

For the burden-shifting statute to apply, the property under appeal must be the same property for both the current and prior years. It does not apply where the disputed assessment is based on structural improvements, zoning or uses that were not considered in the assessment for the prior tax year.

If significant new construction or demolitions occur at the property between the prior and current assessment dates, the taxpayer maintains the burden of proof. If the increase in value is due to the assessment of omitted property, such as when the assessor added square footage previously overlooked, then the taxpayer maintains the burden of proof.

The burden-shifting statute applies only to an increase of assessed value, not to an increase in tax burden. Taxpayers carry the burden of proof to show the value should be lower than the prior year's value.

The burden of proof can shift several times during an appeal. For example, assume that an Indiana commercial property is assessed at $800,000 in Year 1. In Year 2, the assessment increases by more than 5 percent to $1 million.

The property's physical status and use are the same in both years, and the taxpayer has an appraisal supporting a value of $500,000 in Year 2. The assessor carries the initial burden of proof to show her $1 million value is proper. If she fails to make a convincing case, the property's assessment will at minimum revert to its Year 1 value of $800,000. The taxpayer then has the burden of proof to show that its appraised value of $500,000 is correct.

If persuasive, the appraised value likely will carry the day; the Indiana Tax Court has said that an appraisal compliant with the Uniform Standards of Professional Appraisal Practice is often the best evidence of value. Even if the appraisal is unpersuasive, the property's assessment will still be lowered to its Year 1 value.

What are the drawbacks?

Who has the burden is sometimes unclear, so deciding the burden of proof may add an argument to the appeal. Parties may file motions in advance of a hearing to decide the burden of proof issue. If multiple years are under appeal, different parties may (depending on the values from year to year) have the burden of proof for different years, which could complicate the presentation of arguments and evidence at the administrative hearing.

The burden-shifting statute is one reason that more assessors are hiring counsel and paying for appraisals in appeals, which might prolong the appeals process in some cases. Taken as a whole, however, Indiana's burden-shifting experience has been a positive one for taxpayers. Taxpayers have always had to present evidence and arguments to prevail and now, in many cases, so do the assessors.

Indiana has compelled assessing officials to explain how they did their jobs correctly—or lose on appeal. Assessors who can't or won't defend their assessments are more likely to settle, saving taxpayers considerable time and resources. Taxpayers in other states should consider pressing lawmakers in their jurisdictions to replicate this Heartland property tax experiment.

Brent AuberryBrent A. Auberry is a partner in the Indianapolis office of the law firm Faegre Baker Daniels LLP, the Indiana member of American Property Tax Counsel (APTC), the natonal affiliation of property tax attorneys. Mr. Auberry can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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Multifamily Boom May Skew Property Tax Assessment Systems

Since the onset of the Great Recession in 2007 the home ownership rate in the United States has fallen by a considerable 4 percent, according to the Census Bureau. While the U.S. may not have become a nation of renters, that long-cherished and widely promoted American dream of home ownership appears to be less attainable and less desirable than it was a decade ago.

This shift in housing demand has sparked a construction boom in the multifamily sector. Across the nation, developers are building a vast amount of multifamily units. According to Cassidy Turley's most recent U.S. Macro Forecast, developers are set to deliver 160,000 new units this year, the most robust construction period in 15 years.

There has been a lot of ink spilled regarding the significance of this sea-change in housing. Often overlooked, though, is the effect this construction boom will have on property taxes in the multifamily sector in general. To understand the implications for property taxes, however, taxpayers must first understand how tax assessors typically value multifamily buildings.

Many tax jurisdictions, including the District of Columbia, employ a computer-assisted mass appraisal (CAMA) system to value multifamily buildings. CAMA systems are designed to simplify the assessment process across a product type, with the goal of producing more uniform assessments, as opposed to property-specific valuations.

To accomplish this, the taxing entity first stratifies properties into different categories and sub-categories. For instance, the D.C. assessor's office first categorizes multifamily buildings as either high-rise (five floors or more) or low-rise (four floors or less). It then further segments properties by submarket; in D.C. there are three general areas.

With properties categorized by the taxing jurisdiction's specifications, the assessor's office enters actual rental, expense and vacancy data for products within each specific category into the CAMA system. The computer model then produces statistical market-based indices for the various categories.

Assessors use these market-based indices to assess individual properties within categories, rather than using rental and expense information that is unique to that property. While adjustments can be made on an individual basis for property-specific issues, the goal of the CAMA system is to produce uniform assessments within the stratification.

Notwithstanding general grievances with CAMA valuations (and this writer has many), CAMA systems are based on general market data, which makes them prone to break down during periods of rapid market change, or when the stratifications are not updated in a timely manner.

One such scenario involves an oversupply at one end of the sector, as is now occurring in many cities due to the construction of class-A multifamily product. Too much construction of class-A apartments can result in lower occupancy levels and downward pressure on rents for these properties. In another, less understood scenario is a process that has been described as "filtering," in which new class-A product, with its higher levels of finish and greater amenities, displaces existing class-A product at the high end of the market. The older, formerly class-A buildings effectively join the class-B category, achieving lower rental rates than the newer product.

In the latter scenario, the stratifications within the CAMA system must be updated in a timely manner to reflect the new market realities. If they are not, the CAMA system will break down as it aggregates data from dissimilar properties, thus resulting in inflated values for the former class-A buildings.

Washington D.C. is beginning to experience the onset of this market dynamic. Research by Delta Associates indicates that while class-A rents rose slightly across the district, they actually decreased in established submarkets with relatively little new product, such as in the Upper Northwest. The district hasn't adjusted its market stratification's to reflect this new phenomenon, however. Instead, the system lumps together markets that have seen decreased rental rates with markets that are experiencing rent growth due to the influx of new class-A product.

Moreover, in the district all high-rise buildings are included in the same pool of comparable properties, regardless of when they were built, or what levels of finish or amenities they offer. Consequently, unless D.C. updates its CAMA system to reflect these new market norms, it is likely that in the next few years we will begin to see the CAMA system overstate assessments for older class-A product.

While taxing jurisdictions should be cognizant of these market changes and make timely adjustments to their CAMA systems, it will often fall to the property owners to be vigilant in monitoring and, when necessary, appealing property assessments. Watching a building's rent levels decrease due to competition from newer product is bad enough—having the city also tax that building as if it were the newer product just adds insult to injury.


Cryder600 Scott B. Cryder is an associate in the law firm of Wilkes Artis Chartered, the District of Columbia 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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Bay Area Real Estate Recovery Bolsters Proposition 13

The recovery of the Bay Area's real estate markets has muted the public outcry to change Proposition 13's restrictions on assessed value increases. Passed in 1978, Proposition 13 has come under fire for fostering unequal tax burdens.

The reasons that tax-reform fervor is weakening are twofold. First, as the recovery spurs real estate sales, properties will be reassessed at higher market values under Proposition 13's acquisition value system. Second, recent sales are also likely to increase real estate values generally, which will permit assessors to raise the assessments of other property owners. These trends have increased the values of property tax rolls and tax revenues.

Acquisition value system increases tax revenues

One under-appreciated aspect of Proposition 13 is its requirement that assessed values for property tax purposes be equated to acquisition values or sales prices. Critics of Proposition 13 contend that the law keeps values too low and reduces the amount of taxes going to government agencies. But in an active real estate market where properties are held for as little as five years, the opposite is true. In such markets, sales prices are usually climbing, assessed values increase, property tax collections rise, and local governments receive more revenues.

The recent up-tick in Bay Area real estate sales is proving the benefits of Proposition 13 because the values of tax assessment rolls have increased for all counties. For example, the 2013-2014 tax year assessment rolls increased over the previous year by 8.3 percent in Santa Clara County, by 6.0 percent in San Mateo County, by 5.0 percent in Alameda County, and by 4.5 percent in San Francisco. Statewide, assessed values increased by $191.5 billion or 4.3 percent over the prior year.

Recent sales affect assessments

The increase in real estate sales activity doesn't just impact the assessed values and taxes on properties that have sold. It can also affect the values and property taxes for real estate held by investors. Here's why.

Under Proposition 8, the bookend to Proposition 13, assessors can and have reduced real estate assessments in recent years to reflect across-the-board declines in market values. In some cases, the reductions have been considerable, well in excess of the 2 percent annual adjustments that are permitted under Proposition 13.

As real estate markets recover, the Proposition 8 reductions that assessors made in prior years to reflect market downturns usually are reversed. The Proposition 8 values of prior years can shoot up much faster than 2 percent per year for properties that are assessed below their trended Proposition 13 values, depending on where current sales show market values to be. As Proposition 8 values are reversed and values return to Proposition 13 levels, the property taxes on those assets also rise, thereby increasing tax revenues to local governments.

Split roll unnecessary

One of the changes currently advocated by opponents of Proposition 13 is to create a split tax roll which would tax commercial properties differently from residential ones, either by requiring commercial properties to be reassessed annually instead of upon acquisition, or by increasing the tax rates for commercial properties.

However, as described above, such changes are unneeded so long as there is an active market for commercial properties, and so long as sales prices generated by that market tend to increase over time, which is usually the case. When these conditions are present, assessed values will increase and property tax revenues will rise.

As markets continue to recover and assessed values rise, property owners should take stock of their assessed values. Local assessors will begin to set assessed values for the 2014-2015 tax year in January 2014. In some cases, values reduced under Proposition 8 in prior years will be restored to Proposition 13 levels. Taxpayers should ask whether those restored values represent market values, and if a value appears excessive, the property owner should file an appeal.

CONeallCris K. O'Neall is a partner in the Los Angeles law firm of Cahill, Davis & O'Neall LLP, the California member of American Property Tax Counsel (APTC), the national affiliation of property tax attorneys. Mr. O'Neall can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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Will Flood Insurance Changes Put Property Values Under Water?

"Both residential and commercial policy holders currently benefitting from subsidized rates will see a 25 percent yearly rate increase until each rate reflects "true flood risk" according to the new flood insurance maps to be generated by FEMA. New risk tables will not be available until June 2013, making the magnitude of the adjustments uncertain..."

In Texas, flooding is a part of life. Between the Galveston hurricane of 1900 and Hurricane Ike in 2008, seven major hurricanes and destructive tropical storms have ravished the Texas Gulf Coast. The people of Texas have lived through, and re-built, in the wake of these and many other flooding events.

Congress enacted the National Flood Insurance Act of 1968 to create the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), intended to provide an insurance alternative to help property owners meet the escalating costs of repairing damage to buildings and other property losses. The program insures roughly 5.5 million homes, the majority of which are in Texas and Florida. The NFIP also provides building-and-contents flood insurance for businesses.

Communities participating in the program must adopt and enforce a floodplain management ordinance to reduce flood risks in zones recognized as Special Flood Hazard Areas. In exchange, the federal government will underwrite flood insurance for these high-risk communities. The Flood Disaster Protection Act of 1973 made the purchase of flood insurance mandatory for the protection of property within designated special flood hazard areas. Later, the Flood Insurance Reform Act of 2004 further modified the national flood insurance program to reduce losses to property owners with repetitive claims.

Rates for policies under the national program are in most cases substantially lower than privately available insurance, and are the only coverage available for some high-risk locations. Policy premium rates are depicted on flood insurance rate maps (FIRMs) and the mapping process is managed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which oversees the flood insurance program.

Since 1978, the national flood insurance program has paid more than $38 billion in claims, and in 2012, it insured roughly $1.2 trillion worth of property. In January 2009, mostly as a result of the devastating 2005 hurricane season, the national flood insurance program owed the U.S. Treasury approximately $19.2 billion, with yearly interest payments of more than $730 million. The program's worrisome financial health brought it under scrutiny during the 2009 re-authorization process, and the Government Accountability Office issued multiple reports on the program.

Congress passed the Biggert Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act of 2012 to modify the way FEMA manages the national flood insurance program. The act will require the program's rates to reflect true flood risks, a premium hike that should make the program more financially stable. The 2012 act also calls for FEMA to change the way it implements flood insurance rate maps: Under the act's provisions, actions such as buying a property, allowing a policy to lapse or purchasing a new policy can trigger rate changes, effectively ending subsidies and grandfathered policies.

Both residential and commercial policy holders currently benefitting from subsidized rates will see a 25 percent yearly rate increase until each rate reflects "true flood risk" according to the new flood insurance maps to be generated by FEMA. New risk tables will not be available until June 2013, making the magnitude of the adjustments uncertain.

The uncertainty about rates presents a hazard to property values in high risk areas. The greatest uncertainty and risk to property values, however, may be updates to flood insurance maps, which FEMA is currently preparing.

Some policy changes, such as ceasing to recognize private levies and revisions to historical flood lines, may change the risk rating of many properties. For properties where the risk severity and availability of subsidies are changing, the overall economic viability of the property may be at risk.

Changes to the national flood insurance program have created economic obsolescence affecting the values both of properties currently in the program and of properties not in the program, which may have their risk rating changed by the flood maps' pending revision.

While the magnitude of the change in property values may be unknown for several more months, enough information is available to argue that the additional risk these regulatory changes introduce will reduce taxable values of potentially affected properties. Once all the variables are known, affected property owners should undertake an in-depth analysis of the effect of the regulations on property value to determine whether a tax appeal is necessary to obtain a fair property tax assessment.

RodriganoSebastian Rodrigano is a principal at the Texas law firm of Popp HutchesonPLLC. The firm devotes its practice to the representation of taxpayers in property tax disputes and is the Texas member of the American Property Tax Counsel (APTC), the national affiliation of property tax attorneys. Mr. Rodrigano can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..


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A Reason to Challenge Tax Assessments

"The varying directions of price trends demonstrate that now, more than ever, Atlanta property owners should closely review property tax assessments and make specific determinations regarding the correctness of the valuation. General sales trends and perceptions provide insufficient basis for deciding whether or not to appeal the county assessment notice..."

There is a common perception among assessors that an increase in real estate sales activity is a sign of an improving economy. For a commercial property owner on the receiving end of a tax assessment increase, however, it is a good idea to analyze how the assessor came to his/her conclusions and then decide if the increase is justified, or if a protest is in order.

Sales of office, retail, hotel, multi-family and industrial properties in Atlanta increased in number from early 2010 to late 2012, according to CoStar Group, a national researcher. But does that increase automatically result in higher valuations? What trends do the sale prices over this period indicate on a per-square-foot, per-room, or per-unit basis? More importantly, what conclusions, if any, should the taxpayer or assessor draw regarding valuation of individual properties?

Retail properties accounted for the largest number of commercial, arms-length sales transactions in Atlanta from the beginning of 2010 through 2012. Narrowing the focus of sale price data reveals that the average price per square foot paid for retail properties in that period actually decreased by 20 percent. Full-year data for 2013 is not yet available, but sales through July suggest that the downward trend in average price per square foot for Atlanta's retail properties is continuing.

Atlanta's highest percentage increase in number of sales from 2010 through 2012 occurred in the hotel market; despite the uptick in volume, the average price paid on a per-room basis for hotel properties decreased by about 17 percent. Available year-to-date data for 2013 indicates that the average room rate for hotel properties may be increasing, with an associated effect on hotel valuations, but each property will require a closer analysis of the class of property sold, its location, and other relevant facts.
Atlanta's multifamily sector posted a compelling percentage increase in the number of sales completed from early 2010 through 2012. In this group, the average sale price per unit increased over that same period. But again, valuing a specific property would require an examination of all factors, such as quality and location.

The market's office sales increased significantly in number from the beginning of 2010 to year-end 2012. During that time, the average sale price per square foot increased, but like other categories, specific factors must be examined to arrive at a fair value.

Finally, while industrial properties experienced a dramatic increase in the number of sales from the beginning of 2010 to the end of 2012, the average price per square foot for these properties in Atlanta decreased steadily in 2011 and 2012. Whether this trend will continue in 2013 is unknown. Sales would need to be examined for specific industry types or sub-categories of properties in order to draw worthwhile conclusions about the value of a particular parcel.

The varying directions of price trends demonstrate that now, more than ever, Atlanta property owners should closely review property tax assessments and make specific determinations regarding the correctness of the valuation. General sales trends and perceptions provide insufficient basis for deciding whether or not to appeal the county assessment notice.

Research regarding many personalized, property-specific factors and criteria are involved in making a determination of value, including an analysis using the income approach. Atlanta commercial property owners should question any assessor's suggestion that sales volume recovery in the Atlanta marketplace equates to an increase in the value of their properties.

StuckeyLisa Stuckey is a partner in the Atlanta law firm of Ragsdale, Beals, Seigler, Patterson & Gray, LLP, the Georgia member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys. She can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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Annual Tax Hikes, Layoffs Threaten Chicago's Future

"According to the Cook County Clerk's office, the budgets for all Chicago agencies increased by nearly $75.5 million over the previous year. Practically all of the increase was concentrated in the levies of the Chicago Public Schools. The increase in the tax rate was due to the decline in property values and the increase in levies..."

Two seemingly unrelated events dominated Chicago news at midyear 2013 and underscored the deteriorated condition of local government and the economy. The first bombshell fell In early spring, when the Chicago Board of Education announced that it was closing 50 underutilized schools and furloughing 1,742 teachers and 1,387 other staff members.

The second shoe to drop — real estate tax bills — arrived in the mail at the end of June. Always a source of trauma, this year's notices delivered an unexpectedly heavy blow in the form of a 17 percent tax rate increase.

If Chicagoans fail to demand action from state lawmakers and municipal leaders to address the budget shortfalls driving these dire measures, economic recovery threatens to elude the city for years to come. But the first step toward change is to understand the funding crises behind the news.

Shrinking values, expanding budgets

Two factors that determine real estate taxes are the total value of all property within the boundaries of the taxing district, and the tax rate. In Chicago, declining property values mean taxing entities would need to increase the tax rate from previous years in order to generate the same amount of revenue collected in those years. Unfortunately, local government budgets have grown, requiring even more revenue and driving up the tax rate even further.

By law, all properties within the city of Chicago must be revalued once every three years. The most recent tax bills were based on the revaluation completed in April 2013. That revaluation determined that the aggregate value of real estate in downtown Chicago had declined 7.5 percent since the previous valuation, and values in the residential neighborhoods had dropped between 14 percent and 20 percent.

According to the Cook County Clerk's office, the budgets for all Chicago agencies increased by nearly $75.5 million over the previous year. Practically all of the increase was concentrated in the levies of the Chicago Public Schools. The increase in the tax rate was due to the decline in property values and the increase in levies.
An office building just west of the Loop's financial district illustrates a typical tax impact on a commercial property. The 10-year-old, 400,000-square-foot building was originally revalued at 20 percent more than the prior year's valuation. After appealing, the value was finally set at a 1 percent increase, but because of the increase in rate, the tax bill increased to approximately $3,196,900, up by $343,200 over the prior year's bill of approximately $2,852,700.

A study in schools

Why the increase in school district taxes? After a stormy negotiation period, the Board of Education and the Chicago Teachers Union agreed on a new three-year contract that was ratified by all parties in December 2012. A few months later, the board announced 50 school closures and faculty layoffs.

The schools scheduled for closing were almost exclusively located in the poorer sections of the city where gang activity and indiscriminate shootings have proliferated. Parents are concerned about the safety of their children, and they have mounted strong opposition to the closings. Some have filed a lawsuit attacking the legality of the closings.

The board is blaming a $1 billion budget deficit for the budget cuts and the personnel layoffs. Pension costs alone have increased by $400 million to a total of $612 million for this year, and along with the new teachers' contract have contributed mightily to the deficit.

In 2011, Moody's Investors Service calculated the unfunded liabilities for Illinois' three largest state-run pension plans to be $133 billion. There can be no doubt that that number has increased significantly over the last year and a half. Like the U.S. Congress, the Illinois Legislature has been unable to make the tough decisions necessary to fund the pension deficits. In desperation, the governor has ordered that the salaries of the Legislature be withheld until they can agree on a pension plan. The response of the Legislature was not to address pensions but to file a suit against the governor on the grounds that his order was unconstitutional.

In addition to the board of education's pension problems, according to a local newspaper, the City of Chicago must make a $600 million contribution to stabilize police and fire pension funds that now have assets to cover just 30.5 percent and 25 percent of their respective liabilities. Without an agreement with the state, the deficit could rise to $1.15 billion in 2016.

Chicago has suffered greatly from the recession. Over the last 25 years, the aggregate value of real estate in the Central Business District has never before declined in a revaluation. Since 2009, however, the vacancy rate for office buildings in the Loop has stubbornly hovered around 15 percent, squeezing property cash flows and asset values. These conditions will continue until the city's unemployment rate of 9.8 percent declines significantly.

The increased tax rates and the school closings have coalesced into tangible issues to which Chicagoans could respond, but they are only symptomatic of much deeper problems that must be addressed. If left unaddressed, tax rate increases and layoffs will become an annual occurrence.

JR90James P. Regan is President of Chicago law firm Fisk Kart Katz and Regan Ltd., the Illinois 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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Scandal Fallout Threatens Los Angeles Property Tax System

The response to alleged improprieties by Los Angeles County Assessor John Noguez has hurt taxpayers in ways that were unforeseeable when Noguez took office more than two years ago, or when the investigation into those improprieties started last year.

Prosecutors filed dozens of new charges on April 23 in relation to a corruption probe that began more than a year ago. Prosecutors have alleged that Noguez accepted bribes to illegally lower assessments on a number of properties represented by tax consultant Ramin Salari, and named Mark McNeil, one of Noguez's aides, in the charges as well. Prosecutors contend that the scheme cost taxpayers at least $9.8 million in lost tax revenue.

As if the scandal alone weren't enough, the response by the Los Angeles County Assessor's Office to those improprieties has impaired taxpayers' ability to communicate with the assessor's office to resolve property tax appeals. This new communication breakdown, in turn, has increased the cost and time required to process appeals.

New policies

After Noguez took a leave of absence in mid-2012, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors appointed an interim assessor who launched an internal investigation of the assessor's office. The temporary assessor published a "First 100 Days" report in October 2012, establishing two policy initiatives that have significantly damaged the property assessment system's function and efficiency. One measure assigns new personnel to represent the assessor's office before the county's assessment appeals board; the second institutes higher assessed value approval thresholds for settlement of cases pending before the board.

The latter initiative was instituted after a former appraiser in the assessor's office unilaterally changed assessed values for wealthy property owners without management approval. Requiring approval from upper management has reduced the number of cases settled prior to hearing, and either forces more property tax appeals to go to hearing (a surge which has overwhelmed the appeals board's limited resources) or necessitates postponement (which adds to the backlog of pending cases).

Report by independent auditors

The investigation of Noguez also prompted the county's board of supervisors to retain independent auditors to evaluate the assessor's management practices. In late 2012, those auditors issued a comprehensive report which included specific recommendations for the handling of property tax assessment appeals. For example, the auditors recommended that the assessment appeals board force appeals to hearing by not granting more than one hearing postponement to taxpayers.

The assessor's office and the appeals board agreed with some of the auditors' suggestions: The assessor adopted a suggestion that the assessor's office not share case data informally with taxpayers prior to appeals board hearings, and the appeals board concurred with the suggestion that a fee be charged to file assessment appeals.

The changes suggested by the independent auditors, particularly prohibiting informal pre-hearing information exchanges with taxpayers, reduces the possibility of resolving cases short of hearing. The auditors' recommendation that the appeals board avoid granting taxpayers postponements is unrealistic because, in many cases, the assessor is the party asking for more time.

Registration of property tax agents

Another recommendation by the independent auditors was to require persons who represent taxpayers to register as "tax agents." As of this writing, the board of supervisors is considering a registration program that will require people who appear before the assessment appeals board or have contact with the assessor's office, tax collector's office or auditor-controller's office to register as tax agents and pay an annual fee of $250. The program will cover in-house company tax representatives, attorneys and enrolled agents. Registrants would have to follow an 11-point code of ethics and report all political contributions made to any public official in Los Angeles County. Individuals who fail to comply with the registration program would be fined and their names would be listed on the county's website. The California Legislature has also introduced a bill with provisions similar to the proposed Los Angeles County ordinance.

The policy changes described above have slowed the assessment appeal process in Los Angeles County at a time when the system can least afford it. In 2012, assessment appeal filings in the county increased to more than 40,000, a four-fold increase since 2007. The changes in personnel representing the assessor at the appeals boards, new limits on staff authority to settle cases prior to hearings, the recommendation to limit postponements coupled with a restriction on informal information exchanges with taxpayers before hearings, and the requirement that taxpayers' agents register with the county, all work against the speedy resolution of assessment appeals.

The county's assessment appeal system was intended to promote informal and rapid resolutions of property tax appeals. The changes recently implemented or to be implemented by the county and its assessor will thwart those aims, hampering taxpayers' ability to obtain speedy redress of their claims and undermining the effectiveness of the assessment appeal process.

CONeallCris K. O'Neall specializes in property and local tax matters as a partner in the law firm of Cahill, Davis & O'Neall LLP, the California 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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