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Property Tax Resources

Sep
12

Net-Lease Tenants Can Appeal Property Taxes

New York Court of Appeals rejects lower court decision, affirms that occupiers obligated to pay property tax have the right to protest assessments.

In a far-reaching decision, New York's highest court has affirmed the rights of tenants under a commercial net lease to protest assessments and reduce their real property tax burden. The ruling reversed a State Supreme Court dismissal of a petition on the grounds that only a property's owner can file an administrative grievance with the Board of Assessment Review.

In a net lease, the tenant is responsible for paying real estate taxes and other expenses stated in the lease. In The Matter of DCH Auto vs. Town of Mamaroneck, the Court of Appeals in June 2022 published a unanimous decision stating that tenants contractually obligated to pay real estate taxes and authorized to protest assessments may file tax appeals even when they do not hold title to the underlying real estate.

Restoring a precedent

DCH Auto operated a car dealership in a net leased property in Mamaroneck, New York. Its lease with the owner required DCH to pay the property's real estate taxes in addition to rent.

Commercial tenants with this type of lease commonly file tax appeals to correct excessive tax bills and mitigate operating costs. These occupiers include retailers such as department and big-box stores, office building users, banks, drug stores and other businesses.

In the subject lease, DCH had the express right to challenge the subject tax assessment. Pursuant to the statute, it filed an administrative grievance with the town's Board of Assessment Review. The Board denied the challenge, after which DCH petitioned for judicial review.

The town moved to dismiss, arguing that the petition was invalid because the incorrect party had filed the administrative grievance before the Board of Assessment Review. They alleged that the failure of the property owner to file the administrative appeal precluded judicial review of the board's determination.

The lower court agreed and dismissed the petitions on the ground that only a fee owner may file the initial grievance complaints under the New York statutory scheme. The State Supreme Court's Appellate Division, Second Judicial Department, affirmed the petition's dismissal.

Thus, in one fell swoop, the Appellate Division obliterated over 100 years of precedent, which held that a net lessee that pays the real estate taxes is a proper party to file an administrative complaint challenging the assessment. Prior to the DCH lower court decision, it was never disputed that a net lessee was a proper complainant for filing both an administrative complaint and judicial petition. The lower court's ruling effectively required absentee property owners – who do not pay the real estate taxes and have no skin in the game – to file an administrative appeal before a net lessee can file a judicial petition.

The Appellate Division decision placed in jeopardy thousands of real estate tax assessment appeals filed by commercial net lessees who have relied upon common, accepted practice and precedent, and interposed an owner standard where none is present in the plain terms of the relevant statutes.

Fortunately, the Court of Appeals reversed the lower court's decision.

Who's who?

The case turned on statutory interpretation and analysis of legislative intent. At issue was Section 524(3) of the New York Real Property Tax Law (RPTL), which sets forth the process for the review of real property tax assessments. The provision specifies that an administrative complaint must be made by "the person whose property is assessed." If a complaint is denied, then "any person claiming to be aggrieved" can file a judicial appeal pursuant to Article 7 of the RPTL.

The Town of Mamaroneck's position was that the property owner must file the administrative complaint before any aggrieved person can challenge the result in court.

The Court of Appeals held that DCH and all commercial net lessees with the right to challenge assessments are included within the meaning of "the person whose property is assessed" under RPTL Section 524(3).

In its decision, the Court of Appeals considered the text of the statute and noted that "a person whose property is assessed" is not defined. A comprehensive review of the legislative history ensued, beginning with an analysis of the initial text of the statute as it existed prior to 1896. The original statute permitted "any person" to file an administrative complaint. In 1896, lawmakers amended the wording to "a person whose property is assessed." The Court examined the record, cited the New York State Commissioners of Statutory Revision that addressed the change in 1896, and noted that "there is no change of substance" with the revised wording.

In reversing the lower court's action, the Court of Appeals based its decision upon the evolution of the statutory text and the consideration of the underlying legislative intent. The Court made clear that it was not the legislature's intent to limit the meaning of "a person whose property is assessed" to the owners of real property, and that the reference includes net lessees contractually obligated to pay the real estate taxes.

Notwithstanding the DCH decision, commercial net lessees should ensure their tax appeals are not challenged by making certain that their right to file a tax appeal is clearly stated in their lease.

Jason M. Penighetti is an attorney at the Mineola, N.Y., law firm of Koeppel Martone & Leistman LLC, the New York State member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.
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Jul
27

New Jersey Tax Court Supports Taxpayers’ Rights

A New Jersey township learns that tax courts don't always buy into theoretical constructs.

Our tax courts live in a hypothetical world where they review property tax assessments in a theoretical manner to mimic the actual marketplace. Often municipal officials use this paradigm to distort concepts and achieve high values that cannot be realized in the market. The case of CIBA Specialty Chemical Corp. vs. Township of Toms River highlighted this dichotomy.

The subject property is an industrially zoned, 1,211-acre former chemical plant in Toms River, New Jersey. The plant produced industrial dyes and resins for over 40 years. Unfortunately, the manufacturing process also created significant industrial waste that was treated and disposed of on site, significantly contaminating the soil and groundwater.

The environmental contamination was so severe and pervasive that the entire property was designated a Superfund Site and was placed on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (USEPA) National Priorities List in 1983.

Commercial operations at the site ceased in 1996, but environmental remediation work has been both active and ongoing. The controversial nature and extent of the contamination has embroiled the property and township in public controversy, federal criminal prosecution, and a number of civil lawsuits initiated by both public entities and private citizens.

Further complicating matters, the subject property is in a protected coastal zone adjacent to a tributary known as Toms River. This added layer of government oversight by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection serves to safeguard sensitive coastal areas and endangered species from overdevelopment. When put into practice at the subject property, these regulations either completely prohibit or severely restrict redevelopment activity on most of the property.

Any proposed redevelopment at the property would require the prospective developer to navigate this labyrinth of federal and state regulations, obtain consent and cooperation from a number of federal and state agencies, and garner support from the local municipality and public interest groups to avoid politicization of the zoning and planning processes at all levels.

Undaunted by these regulatory restrictions, the town asserted that not only could the property be developed, but that numerous residential housing units could be constructed on the site despite the current zoning or the pervasive contamination. And, of course, the town sought to tax the property on its potential residential value.

It was undisputed that the USEPA was the primary regulatory authority from whom a market participant would have had to obtain approval before attempting to redevelop any portion of the site. The town's own expert conceded this fact. The USEPA has total control over the property while remediation is taking place and will reject any proposal it believes may interfere with selected remedial action, or that would lack public support.

Despite overwhelming evidence that USEPA regulations would prohibit any development, that the zoning didn't allow residential construction, and that the public opposed the site's redevelopment, the town was undeterred. Its leaders argued that high-density housing could have been developed on the property with a rezoning, justifying its revaluation as residential rather than industrial real estate.

The frequent use of hypothetical scenarios encourages assessors to fly far from the reality of the marketplace to justify otherwise unsupportable assessments and increased tax burdens. Finding comfort in this hypothetical world, the town appealed to the perceived taxing-authority bias of the New Jersey Tax Court.

To create their hypothetical world in court, the town redefined key words in the USEPA regulations to establish results that were completely inappropriate for a rational reading of the rules. They stretched logic and applied to the subject property actions that USEPA had taken at other Superfund Sites. In doing so, they assumed that all contaminated sites can be treated the same, and that the case workers at this site will make decisions based on events at other remote Superfund sites, rather than basing decisions on the facts related to the subject property.

The town contrived its self-serving arguments to satisfy an outrageous assessment. It is all too often that the hypothetical nature of the court's standards and the theatrical nature of appraisal theory invite the clear distortion of marketplace reality.

The only saving grace in the system is that the courts assigned to decide these cases are trusted to end the nonsense and craft a decision based on fact and actual dealings. That does not always happen, but here, it did. In a detailed and thorough decision, the court summarized the overwhelming data that proved the taxpayer's case.

The court concluded that the entirety of 1,211 acres was development-prohibited, due to its status as an active Superfund Site and USEPA's ongoing institutional controls. The USEPA's oversite documents, which are legally enforceable and filed with the county clerk, restrict any development at the property unless the USEPA approves, or the site is partially or fully delisted as a Superfund site.

Reality finally hit home for the municipality when it was compelled to refund the taxpayer over $18 million.

These types of rulings in taxpayers' favor are rare. Nonetheless, taxpayers must continue to press courts to recognize market reality. It is not the courts' job to protect the municipal tax base.

Brian A. Fowler, Esq.
Philip Giannuario, Esq.
Philip Giannuario and Brian A. Fowler are partners at the Montclair, New Jersey, law firm Garippa Lotz & Giannuario, the New Jersey and Eastern Pennsylvania member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.
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Aug
12

When Property Tax Valuation Worlds Collide

Simultaneously protesting an assessment and a government taking can put taxpayers in a quandary.

There are multitudes of ways for property owners to reduce their tax burdens, as well as missteps that can derail a tax strategy. With that in mind, taxpayers should beware of trying to prove a low value for a tax appeal while simultaneously claiming a higher value in another proceeding. And here is how it can happen.

Protesting a high assessment

Most real estate taxes in the Northeast -- including those in New York, Pennsylvania, Connecticut and Massachusetts -- have an "ad valorem" or "value-based" assessment method. Thus, the greater a property is worth, the higher its real estate tax burden. A property tax bill is calculated by multiplying the property assessment by the tax rate. The assessment or taxable value is determined by the local assessor or board of assessors and is typically a percentage of market value.

This percentage varies among states and even municipalities. In New York, it is based on a comprehensive analysis of sales. The percentage is released annually by the state's Office of Real Property Tax Services and is different for each municipality. Connecticut sets its percentage by statute. In Pennsylvania, it is set by the state's Tax Equalization Board. But regardless of the state or method, local statutes fortunately allow property owners to reduce their real property tax burden by protesting the assessment they receive.

To successfully appeal a tax assessment, property owners must file a tax appeal and conclusively prove a lower market value. There are a few accepted ways to do this, namely the sales comparison, income capitalization, and cost approaches to determining value. No matter which method is used, the calculation must value the property according to its actual use and condition as it existed on a specific date in the past. New York designates this as a taxable status date and most states use the same or a similar term.

Asserting a higher value

The "actual use and condition" guideline in setting taxable value stands in stark contrast with condemnation and eminent domain guidelines, which value property when it is taken for a public purpose. In that scenario, the property must be valued according to its highest and best use, regardless of how the property is actually being used.

When the government takes private property for a public purpose, it must compensate the owner for the damages to the property's most valuable use. This valuation standard is known as "highest and best use," and has a specific meaning in the appraisal and eminent domain world.

According to the Appraisal Institute's reference text, "The Appraisal of Real Estate," and a multitude of state and federal court cases, the highest and best use of a property must be (1) physically possible, (2) legally permissible, (3) financially feasible, and (4) maximally productive. A taxpayer building a case for maximum value will typically need a lawyer, along with an appraiser and/or engineer, to evaluate these four categories for the specific property, look at the range of uses that qualify under each of those categories, and then conclude which use will result in the highest market value.

For example, a vacant, five-acre, commercial-zoned parcel of land on Madison Avenue in New York City would not be valued as vacant land, but as whatever its maximum use could have been, such as an office building.

At crossed purposes

There can be a serious conflict between the two guidelines when there is a partial taking, such as when a government takes a strip of a larger tract for a road widening, during the pendency of a tax assessment appeal on the larger property. The conflict can arise when the property's highest and best use happens to be its present use and condition.

In that scenario, a property owner is in the difficult position of claiming a low market value for the tax assessment proceedings and claiming a higher market value during the condemnation proceeding. When that happens, the taxpayer's team must perform an analysis to determine which proceeding will potentially result in the greatest benefit to the owner.

A good rule of thumb would be to withdraw the tax appeal and concentrate on the eminent domain claim. This is because for condemnation, the damage has occurred on a single date (the date of the taking). Tax appeals, on the other hand, are filed annually, and market values can change from year to year. A wise petitioner would proceed with a tax appeal only after the eminent domain claim is concluded.

Jason M. Penighetti is an attorney at the Mineola, N.Y., law firm of Koeppel Martone & Leistman LLP, the New York State member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.
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Jun
10

New York City's Pandemic Property Tax Problems Persist

Property tax assessments show market-wide value declines for the first time in 25 years but fall short of reflecting taxpayers' true losses.

What happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object?

The longstanding physics conundrum encapsulates the situation in which New York City property owners currently find themselves, and for better or worse, they're about to discover the answer to the age-old question. 

City government has squeezed increasing sums of property taxes from its real estate stock in each of the past 25 years, but the pandemic is changing everything.

The basic fact is that 53 percent of New York City revenues come from real estate taxes. Fueled by rising rents
that are tied to high costs of new construction, the city property tax base has grown and enjoyed record tax revenues in recent years. 

Total real property tax revenue was almost $30 billion in 2020, according to the city's annual property tax report. Nothing paused the year-over-year tax increases – not the 2008 financial crisis, nor Hurricane Sandy, nor even 9/11. Only a global pandemic could do that.

COVID-19 has affected every element of New York City's economy, but its effect on real estate and property taxes deserves special attention. Total market value of Class 2 properties (cooperatives, condominiums and rental apartment buildings) decreased by 8% last year, according to the Department of Finance's tentative property tax assessment roll for fiscal 2022. Total market value for Class 4 properties (non-residential commercial properties such as hotels, offices, retail and theaters) fell by a whopping 15.75%, including a 15.5% drop for office buildings. Citywide declines were 21% for retail buildings and 23.8% for hotels.

Impact of Tax Status Dates

New York City assesses all its real estate as of Jan. 5 of each tax year. Therefore, last year's market values set as of Jan. 5, 2020, did not reflect any effects of the soon-to-arrive pandemic. For the 2021-2022 tax year, however, the valuation date of Jan. 5, 2021, must fully account for the impact of COVID-19.

As the tentative property tax assessment roll shows, tax assessors have acknowledged significant reductions in property values. But were these values decreased enough to reflect actual contractions in market value?

Many property owners and tax experts believe that recent assessments fail to adequately reflect the extent to which property owners have suffered due to the pandemic. Taxpayers filed a record number of appeals by the March 1 tax protest deadline and there are massive appeal efforts underway to complete the Tax Commission's review of all the filed cases by the end of the year.

While the newly released assessment values show that assessors addressed many COVID-19 issues, such as the negative effects of state and city executive orders and lockdowns, many properties have not seen adequate assessment reductions. Many hotels, for instance, are experiencing ongoing closures, and some hotels report that their total 2020 revenues are less than their property tax bills, even before accounting for operating expenses and debt service. Theaters do not have a hint of a future reopening in sight. Retail landlords have either lost their tenants or stores are withholding rent payments. Residential renters are not paying rent and new laws prohibit eviction proceedings.

Relief Strategies

Property owners can improve their chances for obtaining further relief on appeal by quantifying property value losses. Hotels should gather documentation showing closure dates, occupancy rates and any special COVID-19 costs they will incur when they reopen. Some 25,000 rooms have been permanently closed, and of the few hotels that did not cease operations, occupancy was about 25% for most of the tax year. Some occupied rooms were for COVID-19 patients and displaced homeless families. Industry forecasts anticipate a four-year recovery period for hotels.

Retail and office property owners should be prepared to show declines in gross income and rents received or paid on their financial reports filed with the city. Make a list of tenants that vacated and of those not paying rent. Additionally, the Tax Commission now requires taxpayers to explain the basis of rent declines greater than 10%.

Tax assessments must reflect the entirety of what this pandemic has done to the real estate industry. Almost every avenue and street in New York City has multiple empty stores and local standby establishments are out of business. Theaters and Broadway are shattered; tourists and all manner of visitors have vanished, leaving an empty, lonely and bleak picture for real estate.

New York City authorities must provide more substantial tax relief for property owners. Taxpayers and their advisors will need to take an active part in obtaining reduced assessments, by carefully assembling proof of the decline in their property's market value.

Joel Marcus is a partner in the New York City law firm Marcus & Pollack LLP, the New York City member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.
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Nov
16

Tax Pitfalls, Opportunities in Pittsburgh

Here's what investors should know before buying or developing in the Steel City.

Over the past decade, Pittsburgh has been named the most livable city in the continental U.S., a hipster haven, a tech hub and other trendy titles. Publications laud the city's affordable housing stock in a stable real estate market, access to the arts in an established cultural community, and world-class healthcare and higher education that place the Steel City at the forefront of medicine and robotics.

This attention has drawn real estate investors to submarkets well beyond downtown Pittsburgh's Golden Triangle. Even in the midst of the pandemic and the economic uncertainty that has come with it, a surprising amount of new development has continued in the region.As investors from outside the region consider investing in this real estate market, they should be aware of idiosyncrasies and pitfalls lurking in Pennsylvania tax law.

Welcome, Stranger

As in most states, assessors in Pennsylvania cannot independently change a property's assessment upon its transfer. However, Pennsylvania lets local taxing districts appeal assessments and request value increases, which they often do following a sale. Locals call this the "welcome stranger" tax.

"One of the most common reactions I hear from our out-of-state clients who are new to this market is disbelief that school districts can appeal assessments," says Sharon F. DiPaolo, Esq., the managing partner of Siegel Jennings' Pennsylvania property tax practice. "Of course, in most states that's called a spot assessment, but in Pennsylvania it's just another appeal."

In fact, local school districts (which take the largest piece of the property tax pie) filed more assessment appeals than property owners in 2017-2019, according to The Allegheny Institute for Public Policy data. "The most difficult part for buyers is accurately estimating what is obviously a large part of a property's value equation," DiPaolo explains. "Buyers can budget for the legal costs of defending against an appeal by the government, but it's much harder to underwrite the real estate taxes when they can't know where the assessment will eventually be set. We have seen many investors choose not to enter this market because of the uncertainty."

Allegheny County in particular is unusual in that it has a March 31 assessment appeal deadline, and Pennsylvania uses the filing date as the effective date of value for assessment appeals.This means that properties already under appeal for 2020 should be valued as affected by the early fallout from COVID-19, and 2021 appeals will have to consider the pandemic's continuing impacts on property values.

Understanding the local legal landscape can help investors budget for potential risks, and thoughtfully structuring a deal can sometimes help reduce that risk. For instance, when appropriate, transferring a property's holding company rather than the property itself can avoid triggering an increase appeal.

Further, properly allocating a purchase price—either among multiple properties in a portfolio or among the different components of a going concern—can avoid misinterpretation of deeds and transfer tax statements by local taxing authorities. This also ensures Pittsburgh's 5% transfer tax is applied to the real estate only.

Net lease investors should also be aware that, while many states can be described as "fee simple" or "leased fee" jurisdictions, Pennsylvania is unique in that, in practice, its courts will usually tax a leased property according to whichever of those values yields greater taxes. Through a series of cases over 15 years, Pennsylvania's appellate courts have struggled to base a property's taxation on its "economic reality."

Currently, a property achieving above-market rent is assessed according to its leased fee value (which will be greater than the fee simple value), while a property with below-market rent will be taxed at its fee simple value (which will be greater than its leased fee value). Under this system, two physically identical properties within the same taxing district can be assessed at wildly different values.

Neighborhood Discrepancies

Anthony Barna, senior managing director of Integra Realty Resources Pittsburgh, cautions investors to vet property specifics. "People keep saying,'Pittsburgh's hot,' but it's not the whole region," he says. "It's not even the whole city."

While office vacancy in the CBD had reached a 10-year high even before the onset of the pandemic, some nearby neighborhoods including Oakland and the Strip District can barely satisfy demand. Similarly, new apartments in popular neighborhoods like Lawrenceville are stabilizing quickly at record rental rates, yet rents and occupancies in other neighborhoods remain flat.

"The lack of a significant population increase in the city, coupled with the large number of new residential units coming online, threatens the economic balance and risks an oversupply," Barna observes.

Even more fundamentally, Barna says "a lot of our neighborhoods don't yet have the infrastructure to actually support what someone might want to build." In fact, Amazon cited infrastructure concerns as a major factor in its decision to drop Pittsburgh as a final contender in its HQ2 search.

Similarly, developers should investigate available tax breaks, which vary by location. Frequently these come in the form of Tax Increment Financing (TIF) or Local Economic Revitalization Tax Assistance (LERTA). In 2019, Pittsburgh opened all neighborhoods to potential tax benefits for new developments that meet certain employment or affordability requirements.

Tammy Ribar, Esq., Director at Houston Harbaugh who concentrates her law practice in commercial real estate transactions, advises that additional opportunities are available through various government bodies and can entail program-specific deadlines. "I think the best advice I can give to buyers is to research and understand in advance what programs are available and be informed about applicable deadlines, so that a relatively easy opportunity for savings is not missed," says Ribar.

Based on the recent pace of construction throughout the city, many investors have clearly decided that Pittsburgh's anticipated rewards outweigh its risks. And as many have learned, working with knowledgeable locals during planning can help to avoid headaches – and create significant savings later.

Brendan Kelly is an attorney in the Pittsburgh office of Siegel Jennings Co. LPA, the Ohio and Western Pennsylvania member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.
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Dec
19

Runaway Property Taxes in New Jersey

Tax courts don't always recognize market value in setting property tax assessments.

Most real estate is taxed ad valorem, or according to the value. The theory is that each person is taxed on the value of the real property they own.

The New Jersey Constitution (Article VIII, Section 1, paragraph 1) stipulates that property is to be assessed for taxation by general laws and uniform rules, and that all non-agricultural real property must be assessed according to the same value standard.

Our statutes define the standard of value as the true property value. We call this market value, or the most probable price a property will bring in a competitive and open market under conditions requisite to a fair sale. That assumes the buyer and seller are each acting prudently and knowledgeably, and that the price is unaffected by undue stimulus.

In 2005, the state Tax Court, in a General Motors case, openly admitted it was making a determination that the highest and best use of the property was as an auto assembly facility. By this determination, the court set public policy indicating that this highest and best use fairly and equitably distributed the property tax burden.

In this case the court felt it was necessary to conclude the highest and best use of the property at issue was an auto assembly plant because to do otherwise may allow features of the property to go untaxed and therefore lower the value of the plant. The court also stated that this determination was consistent with and effectuates the public policy of fairly and equitably distributing the property tax burden. All of this was concluded while the market data suggested a different result, given that no auto manufacturing facility had ever before been sold to another automobile manufacturer. Further, by law, the tax court's role is to determine value, not to redistribute the tax burden.

The history of the Tax Court has, in practice if not in theory, interpreted the constitution and statutes of real property taxation to find value in a uniform and stabilized manner. In other words, although the market may vary over a period of years under review, the court would attempt to stabilize the effect of the differences when rendering opinions.

The Tax Court would also set precedent by using methods of valuation not normally used in the marketplace because it deemed the data before it at trial to be lacking. It has, for example, applied a cost approach to determine value when a buyer would purchase a property based on an income approach. This is common in court decisions, but often runs afoul of true market motivations and distorts the conclusion of value. The more the courts reach these types of decisions, the further away they move from concluding market value.

The court's attempt to carry these principles forward has appeared in various ways over the years. As early as 1996, in a case involving a super-regional mall with anchors not separately assessed, the Tax Court deemed the income approach inappropriate to value the stores and instead valued the stores on a cost approach. Today, the legacy of that decision requires plaintiffs to present a cost approach, which is not evidence of market value. This may well distort a property's valuation.

Issues such as capitalization rates are also problematic for certain assets in Tax Courts findings. Over the years, court precedent has set rates that often do not reflect the market. This is especially evident today when valuing regional malls classified as B or C grade. The market capitalization rates are well over those the courts have historically found. Although transactions verify this market data as accurate, the courts fail to recognize it, making it difficult for plaintiffs to prevail with values based on actual, transactional data.

In January 2018, after a number of decisions that rejected plaintiffs' approach, our Tax Court appears to have taken some pause. It recognized that by rejecting proofs from the market and data forwarded by taxpayers, it was ultimately failing to conclude to warranted assessment adjustments.

It stated:

"there has been some criticism of late, that the Tax Court perhaps has raised the bar for meeting the standard of proof too high in property tax appeals, given arguendo, what could be viewed as a growing trend seen in a number of recent decisions, where the court rejected expert opinions and declined to come to value. While such a suggestion may give the Tax Court pause for self-examination and reflection, it must not serve to invite expert appraisers to abrogate their responsibility of providing the court with 'an explanation of the methodology and assumptions used…'"

The quote seems to recognize that the proof bar was getting so high that a plaintiff could never prove its case. A more realistic view of the proofs provided by a taxpayer comes with it the recognition that market data and actions from market participants are the touchstones of value that should establish our assessments.

Philip Giannuario, Esq. is a partner at the Montclair, N.J. law firm Garippa Lotz & Giannuario, the New Jersey and Eastern Pennsylvania member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.
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May
08

How the New Tax Law Affects Property Taxes

Due diligence is required to determine whether possible tax increases can be abated.

President Trump's Tax Cuts and Jobs Act is the first sweeping reform of the tax code in more than 30 years. Signed into law on Dec. 22, the plan drops top individual rates to 37 percent and doubles the child tax credit; it cuts income taxes, doubles the standard deduction, lessens the alternative minimum tax for individuals, and eliminates many personal exemptions, such as the state and local tax deduction, colloquially known as SALT.

While Republicans and Democrats remain divided on the overhaul's benefits, there is a single undeniable fact: The sharp reduction of the corporate tax rates from 35 percent to 21 percent will be a boon for most businesses. At the same time, employees seem to be benefiting too, with AT&T handing out $1,000 bonuses to some 200,000 workers, Fifth Third Bancorp awarding $1,000 bonuses to 75% of its workers, Wells Fargo raising its minimum wage by 11% and other companies sharing some of the increased profits with employees.Companies are showing understandable exuberance at the prospect of lower tax liability, but investments many firms are making in response to the changes may trigger increases in their property tax bills.

Some companies already are reinvesting in their own infrastructure by improving and upgrading inefficient machinery or renovating aging structures. Renovations to address functional or economic obsolescence can help to attract new tenants and, most significantly, command higher rentals for the same space.

The real property tax systems in place for most states are based on an ad valorem (Latin for "according to value") taxation method. Thus, the real estate taxes are based upon the market value of the underlying real estate. Since the amounts on tax bills are based on a property's market value, changes or additions to the real estate can affect the taxes collected by the municipality.

Generally speaking, most renovations such as new facades, windows, heating or air conditioning will not change the value or assessment on a property. The general rule is that improvements which do not change the property's footprint or use, such as a shift from industrial to retail, shouldn't affect the property tax assessment. However, an expansion or construction which alters the layout of a property can – and usually does – result in an increased property assessment. Since real estate taxes are computed by multiplying the subject assessment by the tax rate, these changes or renovations can significantly increase the tax burden.

Recognizing that this dynamic could chill business expansions, many states offer a mechanism to phase-in or exempt any assessment increases. This can ease the sticker shock of a markedly higher property tax bill once construction is complete.

New York offers recourse in the form of the Business Investment Exemption described in Section 485-b of the Real Property Tax Law. If the cost of the business improvements exceeds $10,000 and the construction is complete with a certificate of occupancy issued, the Section 485-b exemption will phase-in any increase in assessment over a 10-year period. The taxpayer will see a 50 percent exemption on the increase in the first year, followed by 5 percent less of the exemption in each year thereafter. Thus, in Year 2 there will be a 45 percent exemption, 40 percent in Year 3 and so on.

Most other states have similar programs to encourage business investments and new commercial construction or renovations. The State of Texas has established state and local economic development programs that provide incentives for companies to invest and expand in local communities. For example, the Tax Abatement Act, codified in Chapter 312 of the tax code, exempts from real property taxation all or part of an increase in value due to recent construction, not to exceed 10 years. The act's stated purpose is to help cities, counties and special-purpose districts to attract new industries, encourage the development and improvement of existing businesses and promote capital investment by easing the increased property tax burden on certain projects for a fixed period.

Not long ago, the City of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, enacted a 10-year tax abatement from real estate taxes resulting from new construction or improvements to commercial properties. Similarly, the State of Oregon offers numerous property tax abatement programs, with titles such as the Strategic Investment Program, Enterprise Zones and others.

Minnesota goes a step further and automatically applies some exemptions to real property via the Plat Law. The Plat Law phases-in assessment increases of bare land when it is platted for development. As long as the land is not transferred and not yet improved with a permanent structure, any increase in assessment will be exempt. Platted vacant land is subject to different phase‑in provisions depending on whether it is in a metropolitan or non‑metropolitan county.

Clearly, no matter where commercial real estate is located, it is prudent for a property owner to investigate whether any recent improvements, construction or renovations can qualify for property tax relief.

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Apr
10

Assessment Shock and Awe in NYC, and your Properties are the Target

The newly released New York City Tax Assessment Roll had a total market value of$1.258 trillion. These results are shockingly bad news for the real estate industry. On average, tax assessments increased by about 9.4 percent.

The breakdown of increases in the assessments are also very surprising, with residential apartments growing by 11.51 percent, while taxable values on commercial properties climbed 7.85 percent. By borough, Brooklyn leads the way in increases, followed by the Bronx, Queens and Manhattan. Staten Island had the lowest percentage of increase at 6.36 percent.

Residential apartment buildings, rentals, cooperatives and condominiums showed strong valuation increases, which appear to be at odds with recent market weakness noted in all these property types. It is well documented that residential rents are slipping or flat, concessions are on the rise, and sales of co-ops and condos have stalled and are showing further signs of decline.

Furthermore , the loss of state and local tax deductions under the new federal tax law increases the burden on taxpayers. All of these factors exert a negative influence on market values.

What we will see in this assessment roll, and in statistics compiled by the New York City Department of Finance, is a strong emphasis on increasing tax burdens across all property types. This effort disregards the current pressures the market's real estate owners are already facing.

It is significant that the mayor has the sole discretionary authority to increase this specific tax. Virtually every other tax collected in the city needs approval from the state legislature, which may be why property taxes are continuing to go up. Just over 45 percent of all revenues for the City of NewYork now come from real estate taxes.

Even hotels, which are experiencing lower revenue per available room and competition that has intensified in recent years with the addition of thousands of new rooms, face an increase of 4 to 5 percent. This rubs more salt in to the wound for this property class.

What the city is doing in this new tax roll is killing the goose that gave us the golden eggs. We see more vacancies and empty store fronts, traffic at a standstill, mass transit in failure and mounting subway line closures. How tough are they making it for the real estate industry to survive?

There is a great need for property tax reform in this city. The percentage of taxes levied on real estate is out stripping taxpayers' ability to pay for it. In effect, the government is almost a 40 percent partner of all the real estate properties without sharing in the risk or having skin in the game. This ever­ growing push to squeeze the last dollar out of our industry will only hasten its fall.

We should call on our government to be more reasonable and limit property taxes to an affordable level. This would be a better strategy, priming the pump of the local economy and permitting future growth. When owners find that their property's largest single expense is its tax burden, which is out of control, they must do something about it-and do it now.


​​​​​​​Joel R. Marcus is a partner in the New York City law firm of Marcus & Pollack LLP, the New York member of the 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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Jan
05

RETAIL SUFFERS FROM EXCESSIVE TAX ASSESSMENTS Assessors attempt to ignore market realities when valuing retail property.

Retail property owners' pursuit of fair treatment in real estate taxation seems to generate a river of appeals and counter-appeals each year. What makes this ongoing melee especially perplexing and frus­trating for property owners is a sense that taxing entities will often ignore market realities and established valu­ation practices to insist upon inequi­table, inflated assessments. This tendency to forsake indus­try norms is rampant, and calls for a dose of reality. This article uses the term "real value" to describe that of­ten ignored element of true property value or genuine value of the real es­tate only, meaning the market value that buyers and sellers recognize as a product of an asset's attributes and the real-world conditions affecting it. Real value in this usage is not a legal term, but encompasses issues that real estate brokers, property owners, appraisers, lawyers and tax managers regularly discuss in retail valuation. The array of issues that affect real value or market value range from the influence of ecommerce on in-store sales to build-to-suit leases, sales of vacant space, capi­talization rates for malls of varying quality, proper ac­counting for eco­nomic or functional obsolesce and more.

All of these important and timely issues find their way into an age-old discussion of how to properly value the real estate, and only the real estate, in retail properties for property tax purposes. Although these topics may involve complex calcula­tions or judgments, buyers and sell­ers regularly use these concepts to ar­rive at mutually agreeable transaction prices, which is exactly the sort of real value that assessors should recognize for taxation. Some taxpayers may be surprised to learn that the arms-length sale of a property on the open market isn't universally accepted among taxing entities as representing that property's real or taxable value. The path to rem­edying assessors' tendency to avoid finding the real value of the real estate only is to educate tax authorities and their assessors by appealing unjust as­sessments, and by sharing the details of beneficial case law that continues to shape tax practices across the country.

Cases in Point
Tax laws vary from state to state so that the applicable principle that comes from the case decision in one region may not fit neatly in another region. Nevertheless, trends and con­cepts are always important guideposts that need to be recognized. Taxpayers who present case law from other re­gions to their local courts can begin the process of introducing the truth of real value in their market. A number of new retail property tax cases have come from the Midwest. These cases deal with issues that tax­ payers coast to coast have argued and continue to argue in the struggle to establish real value in court for retail property. ln 2016, the Indiana Tax Court heard an appeal from the Marion County tax assessor, who was unhappy with an Indiana Board of Tax Review decision that granted lowered assessments on Lafayette Square Mall for the 2006 and 2007 tax years. The assessor had origi­nally valued the property at $56.3 mil­lion for 2006, but the county's Property Tax Assessment Board of Appeal re­duced that amount by more than half. Simon Property Group, which owned the mall during the years in question, appealed to the Board of Tax Review, which further reduced the property's taxable value to $15.3 million for 2006 and $18.6 million for 2007. During the appeal, taxpayer, Simon Property Group, presented evidence of the mall's $18 million sale in late 2007. It stated it had begun to market the property for sale because it was suffering from vacancy and leasing is­sues and the property no longer fit its investment mission. The taxpayer's appraiser indepen­dently verified the sale and concluded it to be arms-length, having been ad­equately marketed and there being no relationship between buyer and seller and no special concessions for financ­ing.This scenario seems like what most of us in the tax assessment community would consider a textbook example of market-defined value. Yet the county assessor appealed the review board's conclusion to the tax court.

What is noteworthy here is that the court affirmed the tax board's conclu­sions, which were also in line with the taxpayer's evidence from a real-world transaction. The sad part about this event is that it required years of review and expense to prove that a sale in the open market reflected value. In Michigan in 2014, the Court of Appeals heard a case presented at the Michigan Tax Tribunal which con­cluded in favor of the taxpayer, Lowe's Home Centers. The case is significant because the court accepted a market­ based value as true taxable value. The taxpayer's expert testified re­garding its appraisals and indicated that they were appraising fee simple interest or the value of the property to an owner, and at the highest and best use as a retail store, valued as vacant. They distinguished between existing facilities and build-to-suit facilities, ex­plaining that the subject property is an existing facility and that the build-to­ suit market rent or sale price is based upon cost of construction, whereas the existing market sale price or rent is a function of supply and demand in the marketplace. Basing his analysis on the above fun­damental premise, the taxpayer's ap­praiser valued the property in detail. Again, what makes this case signifi­cant is that the tribunal accepted the taxpayer's argument, and the court af­firmed that decision.

Incremental Acceptance
While these principles seem univer­sal, they have been rejected in many regions of our country. Tax-assessing communities wage battles to impose excessive values based on a rejection of the actual market. As most tax systems are based in the market value concept, the only resource for these taxing juris­dictions is to distort the concept. These issues are as old as dirt, but resolution remains elusive. The lesson here for the retail prop­erty owner appealing an assessment is to advance arguments that reflect real-world conditions supported by evi­dence. The decisions in these cases and others tell us that someone is listening to those arguments, and taking heed.

​Philip Giannuario is a partner at the Montclair New Jersey, law firm Garippa, Lotz & Giannuario. the New Jersey and Eastern Pennsylvania member of American Property Tax Counsel (APTC), the national affiliation of property tax attorneys. Philip Giannuario can be reached at  This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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Aug
22

Delaware Court Unlocks Opportunities to Reduce Property Tax Burden

Reducing property tax assessments can be challenging under the best of circumstances, and distinctions between state tax systems make minimizing that burden across an office or industrial portfolio especially daunting. But a recent Delaware Supreme Court decision provides taxpayers with a new, yet surprisingly familiar, opportunity to ease the tax burden on properties in The First State.

Delaware's Tax Assessment System Shows its Age

Under Delaware law, property must be valued at its "true value in money," a term interpreted to mean the property's "present actual market value." However, in order to implement the Delaware Constitution's mandate of tax uniformity, the state applies a base­year method of assessing property. That means that all property in a jurisdiction is assessed in terms of its value as of a certain date, and that value remains on the books indefinitely until the jurisdiction performs a general reassessment. For Delaware's northernmost county, New Castle County, the last reassessment occurred in 1983, so all property therein is valued as of July 1, 1983.

A major challenge to contesting assessments in Delaware is that a taxpayer must determine the property's 1983 market value. Determining what a property is worth today is not always easy, but proving a property's value as of three decades ago has proven increasingly difficult. Furthermore, in the absence of regular adjustments to a property's assessed value, the county asserts that a property should be valued either as it existed in 1983 or, if it was built after 1983, as if it is new and undepreciated.

Delaware's courts have explained that taxpayers have two options in assessment appeals. The first option is to use data from the base year. The property owner could, for example, find sales of comparable properties in or around 1983, or using prevailing market rents and capitalization rates from 1983. The alternative route is to calculate the current market value of the property and "trend back" that amount to 1983. The County Board of Assessment Review has expressed a near-absolute preference for 1983 data, and rarely finds a taxpayer's trending formula acceptable.

The inequities of this practice are blatant. Under the county's interpretation of the base year system, a building constructed in 1983 and located next door to a similar new building should be assessed and taxed at the same level, even though buyers, sellers and tenants are likely to value the buildings quite differently. If the owner of the 34-year-old building wanted to contest its assessment, the owner would have to identify data for new buildings in 1983. Of course, as time marches on and years turn to decades, relevant data from the base year becomes increasingly difficult to find.

Taxpayers Highlight the System's Obsolescence

Taxpayers have raised many challenges to Delaware's assessment system, but most successful challenges have been fact-specific, and no recent court has gone so far as to order Delaware's counties to complete a reassessment. But after several attempts, the taxpayers in Commerce Associates LP v. New Castle County Office of Assessment successfully underscored the largest flaw in the system.

One Commerce Center is an office condominium building in Wilmington, Delaware. The county originally assessed each office condominium upon construction in 1983. After keeping the same tax assessment for decades, the owners of several of the condominiums challenged their assessments in 2015.

Before the County Board of Assessment Review, the owners presented five different analyses. Two analyses relied on comparable sales transactions, one using 1983 sales of buildings that were about 32 years old, and one using modern asking prices trended back to 1983 using the Consumer Price Index (CPI). Two analyses relied on income, one using 1983 data and one using 2015 data trended back to 1983 using the GPI. The fifth analysis employed a cost approach using the original construction expense and reflecting depreciation. These approaches showed that the properties were over-assessed by more than 40 percent.

The county presented evidence of the condominiums' sale prices in 1985, when each unit was relatively new. The county also presented an income approach using 1983 data and a cost approach reflecting no depreciation. The county's approaches all supported the original assessed values, and the board ultimately denied the taxpayers' appeals.

State Supreme Court Approves a Decrease

After having their appeals denied by the Superior Court, the taxpayers brought their challenge to the Delaware Supreme Court. In a tersely worded decision, the Supreme Court reiterated that assessors must consider all relevant factors bearing on the value of a property in its current condition. While the County argued that no depreciation was needed because the properties were brand new in 1983, the court noted that the properties were, in reality, more than 34 years old. Failing to account for their age and any resulting depreciation or appreciation resulted in a flawed value.

Although the county has yet to implement the court's decision, the effects of the decision will likely be widespread. Most properties in New Castle County built after 1983 are assessed without any depreciation. Because each tax year brings with it a new opportunity to challenge an assessment, property owners can bring a new appeal reflecting the property's current depreciation to the Board of Assessment Review every year. Ultimately, this could result in the downfall of the decades-old base-year assessment, as the county finds it necessary to update assessments for a larger number of properties.

A number of questions remain unanswered by the court's ruling. How should assessors value properties in areas that were rural in 1983 but are now highly developed? How can taxpayers quantify and reconcile appreciation and depreciation?

Future cases will need to resolve these questions, but for now, owners of Delaware property should evaluate their portfolios and determine whether opportunities exist to improve profitability by reducing property taxes.

Benjamin Blair is an attorney in the Indianapolis office of the international law firm of Faegre Baker Daniels, LLP, the Indiana and Iowa member of American Property Tax Counsel. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..
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