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Property Tax Resources

Sep
17

Environmental Contamination Reduces Market Value

Protest any tax assessment that doesn't reflect the cost to remediate any existing environmental contamination.

Owners of properties with environmental contamination already carry the financial burden of removal or remediation costs, whether they cure the problem themselves or sell to a buyer who is sure to deduct anticipated remediation expenses from the sale price. Fortunately, New York law allows those property owners to reduce their property tax burden to reflect their asset's compromised value.

Tax types

Most local governments in the United States impose a property tax on real estate as a primary source of revenue, levied and calculated by either ad valorem or specific means. Latin for "according to value," ad valorem taxes are imposed proportionately based upon the market value of the property. Thus, the higher the market value, the higher the real estate tax.

Specific taxes, on the other hand, are fixed sums without regard to underlying real estate value. School, county and town governments nearly always compute real property taxes using the ad valorem method, whereas lighting, garbage or sewer districts typically apply specific taxes. Because school and county/town taxes account for the overwhelming majority of a property tax bill, property owners frequently use assessment litigation concerning the market value of the subject property to reduce assessments and, as a result, lower the real property tax burden.

The cardinal principle of property valuation for tax purposes is that assessments cannot exceed full market value. Many states including New York codify this in their constitutions. The concept of full value is regularly equated with market value, which is the highest price a willing buyer would pay and a willing seller accept, both being fully informed.

Disagreements often arise if the subject property is afflicted with environmental contamination. The treatment of environmental contamination and remediation costs is of particular concern to both owners and municipalities. Owners seeking to depress taxable values and thereby reduce their tax burden claim these expenses dollar-for-dollar off the market value under the principle of substitution. In other words, a proposed buyer would not pay more than $8,000 for a parcel worth $10,000 which needs $2,000 of remediation.

On the other hand, municipalities would prefer the adoption of a rule (either via legislation or court decision) barring any assessment reduction for environmental contamination. Otherwise, they claim, polluters would succeed in shifting the cost of environmental cleanup to the innocent taxpaying public, in contravention of the public policy of imposing remediation costs on polluting property owners and their successors in title.

Pivotal case

Fortunately for property owners, a seminal 1996 court decision guides the treatment of environmental costs to cure taxable value in New York. In Commerce Holding Corp. vs. Town of Babylon, the petitioner purchased 2.7 acres of land in the Town of Babylon, Suffolk County. A former tenant of the property had performed metal plating on the premises and discharged wastewater containing multiple heavy metals into on-site leaching pools, ultimately resulting in the severe contamination of the parcel. The owner filed tax appeals and argued the value of the property should be reduced by the considerable costs needed to clean up the parcel.

As expected, the town's position relied on a public policy approach and urged the court to reject any argument for a reduced assessment. Ultimately, the case traveled to New York's highest court, which summarily rejected the public policy arguments that polluters should not be rewarded with lower assessments.

Instead, the court applied the constitutional and statutory requirements of full market value assessments, holding that the full value requirement is a "constitutional" mandate which cannot be swept aside in favor of public policy. Thus, property must be valued as clean, with the value reduced by the costs to cure the remediation per year. Challenges seeking the limitation or outright reversal of the Commerce Holding case have been continually rejected.

A recent clarification

The New York State Court of Appeals did not address remediation again in a property tax litigation context for almost 20 years after Commerce Holding. In a 2013 case, Roth vs. City of Syracuse, a property owner sought to have the assessment on certain rented properties reduced because of the presence of lead-based paint.

The court declined to expand the application of Commerce Holding in this case for two significant reasons. First, the owner continued to rent the buildings and collect income. Second, the owner had not taken any steps to remove or remediate the lead paint and restore the properties. Thus, to successfully claim an assessment reduction, a property owner should not stand idle but take definitive actions to remediate the property. 

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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Jun
06

Nothing New About The Old ‘Dark Store Theory’

Statutory law continues to require that assessors value only the real estate, not the success or lack thereof, by the owner of the real estate.

Assessors and their minions frequently take the position that an occupied store is more valuable than an unoccupied store, a conclusion commonly referred to as the "Dark Store: theory. Owners of big-box retail properties and their tax advisers bristle at this erroneous contention, because real property taxes are just that– a tax on the value of the real estate.

It is the assessor's function to value the property's real estate components, which consist primarily of land, bricks and mortar; or in the cases of most big boxes, land, concrete, pop-up concrete or metal slabs. It is a common but mistaken practice of assessors to place a greater taxable value on a big box occupied by a major retailer than on a vacant building of equal design, construction and utility.

This errant valuation methodology has given rise to controversy played out through expert testimony and sophisticated argument before administrative agencies and the courts. It is in this context that the term "Dark Store theory" has come into play.

A call to action

Owners of big-box real estate need to deliver a consistent response in the face of this increasingly pervasive and costly misconception. And because informal meetings between the owner's representative and the assessor are limited in time and scope, providing little opportunity for sophisticated argument, these owners must take a position that can be expressed in laymen's terms and understood by the average taxpayer.

That message is that the dark store theory is not a theory at all. It is a reality. The real estate components of occupied buildings have the same value as the real estate components of vacant buildings.

Dark Store theory has become part of the dialogue when valuing commercial properties for taxation. It's vilified as though it were a new concept with dark connotations, like the revelation of a new and insidious scheme by Darth Vader. In fact, its underlying concept is as old as the exercise of determining value for any purpose.

Unless a particular property has actually sold on a particular date, any opinion of its market value is hypothetical. Any such opinion is subject to informed disagreement within the boundaries of accepted valuation methodology. The standards of that methodology, as expressed, for example, in the Uniform Standards of Appraisal Practices, require that the value of a property is based on the willing-buyer, willing-seller concept. The assumption is that a willing buyer wants to buy and use the property.

Logic, not to mention all standards of appraisal practice, dictates that the hypothetical buyer is buying the property for some purpose. Whatever that purpose, it precludes the seller's continuing to use the property. This discussion is independent of a sale-leaseback transaction, which is a financing strategy.

The reality is that the buyer wants to use the property, as is the case across the spectrum of property purchases.

A residential parallel

The same concept applies to the sale of a suburban bungalow. When the Smiths buy a home from the Joneses, they expect the Jones family to vacate the property by the closing date. The Smith family bought the property expecting it to be available for occupancy on the closing date. Nothing about the selling family's success or possible dysfunction affects the purchase price.

In valuing single-family homes, assessors do not discuss the resident families' success (all the children became neurosurgeons). Yet assessors effectively do so in valuing big boxes, which by all valuation standards must be deemed available for occupancy as of the date of closing.

One does not hear the expression "dark house theory," because the assumption of availability of the property for use by the buyer at closing is intrinsic to the transaction. In appraisal parlance, the concept has been and remains that the exchanged property is "free and clear of all encumbrances," ergo vacant, or in current usage, "dark."

Many big boxes, typically measuring in the neighborhood of 100,000 square feet, have come on the market in recent years due in part to changing consumer buying patterns and reduced store counts by retailers. There is a tendency among assessors to over-value properties occupied by the surviving big-box retailers, in effect imposing a form of income tax that they justify by citing retailers' over-all company sales, while turning a blind eye to the availability of big boxes standing dark in the same market.

The sales volume and profits produced by a big-box store are as unrelated to the real estate's value as apple pie is to a computer. Thus, two side-by-side buildings of the same size and specifications, with one housing a high-profit retailer and the other an empty or dark box, have the same real estate value.

Jerome Wallach is a partner at The Wallach Law Firm in St. Louis, the Missouri member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.
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Apr
25

Onerous Property Tax Requirements Proposed

True to campaign promises, the new Cook County assessor has proposed sweeping legislation that borrows the most burdensome tax requirements and penalties from jurisdictions across the country. But will this enhance transparency or simply saddle taxpayers with inaccurate assessments and the need for costly appeals?

The 2018 race for Cook County Assessor ended in Fritz Kaegi beating out incumbent and long-time political powerhouse Joseph Berrios. Kaegi's campaign promises targeted the "insider" game of property tax appeals and proposed to bring fairness and transparency to the Illinois property tax appeal system.

The proposed requirements would only be imposed on commercial or income-producing properties worth more than $400,000, or residential properties with seven or more units worth more than $1 million. Residential properties with six units or less, as well as mixed-use commercial/residential buildings with six or fewer apartment units and less than 20,000 square feet of commercial area, are exempt from reporting income data.

In Cook County, these commercial properties will be required to submit income and expense data to the assessor prior to July 1 each year, and attest to the truthfulness of such information. Counties outside of Cook County may adopt the same requirement.

Property owners who fail to file the required information may receive a notice from the assessor demanding its submittal. If the taxpayer fails to report the income pursuant to the notice, the taxpayer will be fined 2 percent of the previous year's total tax bill. If the taxpayer still does not submit evidence within 120 days of the original notice, the proposal adds a second penalty of 2.5 percent of the prior year's tax bill.

As if these financial penalties were not enough, the taxpayer who fails to provide the information within 120 days is precluded from appealing the subject property's tax assessment. Furthermore, the Cook County State's Attorney's office is granted the right to subpoena the income and expense data from the tax payer on an annual basis.

None of the legislation eliminates the right to appeal to the Board of Review, however.

So, will the proposed statute bring fairness and transparency to the appeal process? No.

Round hole, square peg

The requirement to file income and expense data is not revolutionary. In many cases, taxpayers file appeals based directly on the property's income data rather than incur appraisal expenses. On the other hand, income-producing properties that commission an appraisal will provide the income and expense data to the appraiser in order to explain any differences between the actual rents in the subject property and the market rents used to calculate the assessment. Thus, the new rules will not necessarily bring more transparency to the values of multimillion-dollar commercial properties.

For the institutional investor, the greatest concern about the proposal is the validity and application of the collected income and expense data. As the old saying goes "garbage in, garbage out."

The assessor claims that the collection and aggregation of data directly from taxpayers will help identify the true rental market value of specific real estate. The concern is that taxpayers will be reporting a variety of unadjusted rents rather than market rates. Market rates take into account the differences between gross, modified and triple net leases, as well as tenant improvements, concessions, length of lease, sale-leasebacks and a host of other factors. Without adjustment to market rates, the data will be incorrect and the assessments will be inflated. This will produce a higher rate of appeal on an annual basis and impose greater appeal burdens on all involved.

Furthermore, the new requirements will bring the greatest harm to smaller commercial investors who may not be filing property tax appeals at all. Many of these are mom-and-pop organizations that keep handwritten ledgers and have market values between $400,000 and $1 million. The annual reporting requirement and respective penalties would be financially burdensome to taxpayers in this group, many of whom never undertook the expense of filing an appeal. Now those taxpayers may be open to valuation increases on an annual basis and have to spend money on appraisals and attorney representation.

And transparency?

The proposed statue prohibits "non-personal income and expense data" the assessor collects from being accessed through Freedom of Information Act searches. Does this indicate that the data sets the assessor produces cannot be analyzed by the taxpayer for accuracy? Where is the fairness and transparency in that?

If the statute passes, the hurdle for Illinois taxpayers will be to clearly identify the difference between market rents and actual rents for each of their properties, which may result in extremely burdensome requirements and penalties. The mandated steps may require intricate analysis and could result in property owners expending time and money responding to annual notices for documentation, fines for noncompliance, and the inability to challenge illegal assessments as a right.

Much of the income-and-expense statements, rent rolls and other data the assessor seeks are already available in documentation currently being submitted in support of annual appeals. Based upon this readily available data, the assessor should be able to generate guidelines that reflect current rental rates, occupancy levels and capitalization rates.

If Cook County taxes need reform, this is not the reform.

Molly Phelan is a partner in the Chicago office of the law firm Siegel Jennings Co. LPA, which has offices in Cleveland, OH, Pittsburgh, PA and Chicago. IL and is the Ohio and Western Pennsylvania member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys
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Jan
30

Attorney: Owners Need to Investigate Whether Possible Tax Increases from New Tax Law can be Abated

''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"

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, 2017, 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 percent of its workers, Wells Fargo raising its minimum wage by 11 percent 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 rental rates 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 that 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 expans1on or construction that alters the layout of a property can -and usually does -result in an increased property assessment. Since realestate taxes are computed by multiplying the subject assessment by the tax rate, these changes or renovations can significantly increase the tax burden.

Tax Exemptions Available for Property Improvements

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 two there will be a 45 percent exemption, 40 percent in year three and so on.

Most other states have similar programs to encourage busmess investments and new commercialconstruction 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 realproperty 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 enacted a 10-year tax abatement from realestate 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 and Enterprise Zones.

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.



Jason M. Penighetti is an attorney at the Mineola, N.Y., law firm of Koeppel Martone & Leistman LLP, the New York State member of AmericanProperty Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys. Contact him at JPenighetti@taxcert. com.
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Aug
03

Property Owners Celebrate Fair Taxation Ruling by Pennsylvania Supreme Court

"Nearly every state constitution requires uniformity in taxation, meaning that two like properties should receive the same assessment, no matter how they are owned, occupied, built or financed."

Commercial property owners around the country are cheering a recent Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision that breathes new life into constitutional guarantees of uniformity in taxation.  Overruling a decade of lower court decisions, the ruling reestablishes the primacy of constitutional uniformity protections to taxpayers in the strongest possible language, fittingly issued just one day after the July 4 holiday.

Nearly every state constitution requires uniformity in taxation, meaning that two like properties should receive the same assessment, no matter how they are owned, occupied, built or financed.  Yet commercial property owners across the nation have been under attack by assessors attempting to alter appraisal theory in order to pin higher assessments and higher real estate taxes on specific owners.

These assessors have been singling out occupied commercial properties by setting assessments based on financing mechanisms that fail to meet standard appraisal definitions of market sales, incorrectly basing taxable value on data relating to sale-leasebacks, turnkey leases and contract rights arid duties associated with tenant financing.

In Pennsylvania and Ohio, the only states that provide school districts a statutory right to file increase appeals, the school districts have been targeting specific commercial owners for higher assessments using this same flawed methodology.  These selective or “spot” appeals disrupt constitutionally required uniformity in assessment.  Many Pennsylvania school districts have been paying contingency fees to behind-the-scenes consultants to select properties for appeal.

Commercial Portfolio Owners Beware

The consultants’ favorite repeat targets are national real estate portfolio owners that cannot vote in local school board elections.  The practice has gained traction over the past five years, with national companies being forced to defend against an ever-increasing number of increase appeals in which school districts seek discovery of the property owner’s confidential real estate information and then use it against the owner to justify an increase in assessment.

This practice violates fundamental fairness and puts targeted commercial owners at a competitive disadvantage with commercial owners whose assessments are not increased.  It also shifts more of the tax burden from residential to commercial owners, since most school districts are loathe to sue voting residential owners to increase their assessments.

In Valley Forge Towers Apartments LP vs. Upper Merion Area School District, the school district filed increase appeals only against commercial property owners and not against residential owners.  The district selected properties for appeal after consultation with Keystone Realty Advisors, a New Jersey tax consultant that employs trained appraisers and takes a 25 percent contingent fee on any increase in taxes resulting from its recommended appeals.

Four apartment building owners that had been targeted for these appeals challenged the school district’s selection of only commercial owners for appeals as violating the Pennsylvania Constitution’s uniformity in taxation requirement.  Both the trial court and the first-level appellate court denied the taxpayers’ challenge, holding that the school districts goal of increasing revenue justified the selective nature of the appeals.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court reversed those rulings.  The court stated that all taxpayers must be uniformly treated, whether they are residential or commercial owners, and that no assessment scheme can systematically treat residential and commercial taxpayers differently.

The court stated no less than 13 times that all real estate is a single class.  The court observed that this constitutional tenet has been in place since 1909 and was reaffirmed by the court on multiple occasions, and that the court had no intention of discarding it.  The court then stated that the government may not create sub-classifications of property for different tax treatment, a point it repeated nine more times in its decision.

What the Ruling Means Going Forward

The ruling makes it abundantly clear that all real estate must be taxed uniformly, and that this constitutional protection is for the benefit of the taxpayer:

“First, all property in a taxing district is a single class, and as a consequence, the uniformity clause does not permit the government, including taxing authorities, to treat different property sub-classifications in a disparate manner,” the court stated.  “Second, this prohibition applies to any intentional or systematic enforcement of the tax laws and is not limited solely to wrongful conduct.”

The court then remanded the case to determine if there was a systematic disparate treatment of the Valley Forge taxpayers.  It will be unnecessary to show that the school intended to treat the taxpayers differently from other taxpayers.

The principal takeaway from the case is that all taxes must be uniformly assessed, and that any purposeful or unintentional systematic assessment that treats taxpayers in a disparate manner is unconstitutional.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s decision underscores the need for a real estate taxation standard that treats residential and commercial properties uniformly.  In current practice, assessors around the country assess commercial and residential properties using different standards.  Residential property is taxed on a fee-simple, unencumbered basis: that is, the property is assumed to be vacant and available for purchase as of the assessment date.

Commercial property, on the other hand, increasingly has been assessed on the assumption that it is occupied by a successful business.  In those instances, the assessment reflects the way that the business finances its occupancy, whether it chooses to lease the building or own it outright.  Commercial property frequently trades as part of an ongoing business or with long-term leases, deed restrictions or other use restrictions in place.  But to be uniform, property taxes must rely upon a single interest valued for tax purposes.

The only interest that is uniform across all categories is the fee-simple, unencumbered value.  As the Valley Forge decision makes clear, there can only be one standard because all real estate is a single class.

Now, across the country, tax professionals can use the Valley Forge decision to bring fairness to commercial property owners.

Sharon DiPaolo

Sharon DiPaolo is a Partner in the law firm Siegel Jennings Co, L.P.A., which has offices in Cleveland and Pittsburgh.  The firm is the Ohio and Western Pennsylvania member of American Property Tax Counsel. Sharon can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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Mar
20

Pennsylvania Supreme Court Takes Up Issue of Reverse Property Tax Appeals Across State

The Philadelphia School District is looking to increase the number of reverse property tax appeals, which could result in more tax dollars for schools such as South Philadelphia High School

Pennsylvania property owners and tenants, who pay some of the highest property taxes in the nation, are no doubt aware of the annual deadline to file a property tax appeal. After all, one look at a new tax bill is often enough to make even the most seasoned tax manager scramble to contact their local tax counsel.

However, very few taxpayers are aware that the assessment they may have accepted as favorable could easily trigger a reverse appeal filed by the local school district.

Assessment appeals filed by the taxing entities, often referred to as reverse appeals, are increasingly common as cash-strapped school districts seek to fill their coffers. Just as a tax manager might view an inflated assessment as a reason to appeal, more and more school districts see potentially under-assessed properties as a much-needed source of additional revenue.

To the bane of many taxpayers, this tactic has now reached the city of Philadelphia. Despite undergoing a citywide property revaluation for the 2014 tax year, with another currently slated for 2018, the Philadelphia School District recently decided to begin filing reverse appeals against properties it feels are under-assessed.

On Sept. 15, 2016, for the first time, the school district authorized the superintendent to contract with an outside law firm for the sole purpose of filing reverse appeals on the district’s behalf. It also authorized the superintendent to contract with Keystone Realty Advisors LLC, a real estate valuation and advisory group that will serve as the primary identifier of under-assessed properties in the city.

Changes a long time in the making

To many in the world of tax appeals, the emergence of reverse appeals in Philadelphia was unsurprising and inevitable. Keystone had previously peddled its services in a number of other Pennsylvania counties, including Lackawanna and Luzerne. Additionally, last year the Philadelphia School District hired Uri Monson to fill the vacant chief financial officer position. Monson previously served as chief financial officer for Montgomery County, another Pennsylvania county that saw a number of school districts utilize Keystone’s services to identify potential reverse appeals.

In Philadelphia, Monson says the reverse appeal initiative will focus on properties that are undervalued by at least $1 million. City Councilman Allan Domb has indicated that there may be up to $75 million in untapped revenue from commercial properties alone. The school district, which receives 55 percent of the city’s total property tax revenue, stands to gain up to $41 million.

According to Monson, reverse appeals are a tool to ensure that the school district’s funding is spread equitably across all taxpayers throughout the city, and are not intended to target particular neighborhoods or classes of property. Commercial taxpayers are not so sure.

Currently pending at the Pennsylvania Supreme Court is the case of Valley Forge Towers Apartments N, LP vs. Upper Merion Area School District and Keystone Realty Advisors, LLC. At issue before the court is whether the Upper Merion Area School District and Keystone Realty Advisors violated the uniformity clause of the Pennsylvania Constitution by selectively filing reverse appeals on commercial properties, while ignoring significantly under-assessed single-family properties.

The court will have to decide whether a school district’s statutory right to file an appeal, and an economic reason for doing so, insulate the district from review when it decides to appeal an assessment.

The long-term results

The Supreme Court’s decision will likely have far-reaching effects. Should the court decide that the school district and Keystone’s method for selecting reverse appeals does indeed violate the uniformity clause, that finding will likely preclude taxing districts throughout the state, including Philadelphia, from selectively filing reverse appeals.

On the other hand, if the court rules in favor of the school district, it will legitimize the current reverse appeal process that is slowly permeating the state. The latter result may even inspire additional taxing districts to explore reverse appeals as a source of revenue generation.

The court has already received over a dozen friend-of-the-court briefs from various groups with an interest in the outcome, seeking to weigh in on the issue.  Oral arguments were heard on March 8, 2017, though it will be months before the court issues a decision.

Whatever the outcome, taxpayers will want to pay close attention to the Supreme Court’s decision, especially those considering purchasing property in Philadelphia or any other school district that actively pursues reverse appeals.

Under the current system, one of the easiest ways for the districts to pick up on potential appeals is to compare the sale price against the property’s current assessment. Unfortunately, this often means unexpected litigation expenses for new property owners and the potential for higher-than-anticipated tax bills.

Gregory Schaffer photo

Gregory Schaffer is an associate at the Montclair, N.J., las firm Garippa Lotz & Giannuario, a New Jersey and Eastern Pennsulvania 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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Dec
31

How Do I Win My Property Tax Appeal?

If the compelling evidence is on your side, the record shows you have a fighting chance.

The best time to consider how an appellate court might view a property tax appeal is not after a trial court delivers an unwelcome decision.  Rather, as the taxpayer carefully plans the evidence to be submitted at trial, it is worthwhile to consider how the evidence will look to appellate judges.

The handling of tax cases in appellate courts receives comparatively little attention.  Yet an appellate court may well make the final decision in a property tax appeal.  That appellate court may even be a state’s highest court, typically (though not always) the state’s supreme court.

Based on the attention given to appellate court strategies in tax literature, the handling of appeals is a neglected orphan in the property tax process.  Innumerable property tax articles address how assessors mass appraisal methods can overstate a property’s market value.

Writers cover pitfalls of the typical cost and sales comparisons and income approaches to value, or detail valuation peculiarities by property type.  Little is written about the key issue that can help tax-payers prevail in the appellate courts.

The Record Rules

Everyone has heard that the three points of consequence for real property are location, location, location.  For a property tax appeal in an appellate court, those three points of consequence are the record, the record and the record.

Whether the taxpayer is the appellant or is responding to an appeal, the best chance of prevailing derives from a record filled with compelling evidence that covers the big-picture points, as well as all of the finer ones.

Some recent decisions confirm these points and show some of the opportunities and challenges that property tax appeals in appellate courts can entail.  In each case the appellate court found that the record showed the tribunal had adopted a wrong principle or made a decision not supported by competent and substantial evidence.

In one Midwestern case, the question at issue was whether the taxpayer had mistakenly reported personal property as taxable in a particular jurisdiction, even though the personal property was not only in other cities, but also in a different state.

At trial, counsel had the taxpayer testify in painstaking detail about the property and its location, including unusual costs the taxpayer incurred to maintain the property.  Notwithstanding this evidence, the tribunal held that the taxpayer had failed to satisfy its burden of proof.

At oral argument in the court of appeals, however, the taxpayer’s counsel was able to read compelling portions of the transcript to show that the trial judge had erred badly.

Sometimes judges cannot be swayed, no matter what is said at oral argument, but in this case the passages quoted grabbed the attention of all three appellate court judges, who seemed to fully understand the injustice that had occurred.  The resulting decision gave the taxpayer a complete victory.

Great Valuation Records

A second case involved a retail property in the Midwest that was almost 80 percent vacant on each of two valuation dates.  The initial tax tribunal decision adopted the appropriate methodology by using the income approach to first value the property at a stabilized occupancy of 85 percent, which the judge determined was the stabilized rate.  The judge then deducted the lost rent and costs involved over the time needed for the property to reach stabilized occupancy level.

Unfortunately, the tribunal’s decision included three technical flaws:

It deducted only a portion of the stabilization costs; it understated the area needed to be leased in order to achieve stabilization; and it included market rent that was inappropriately increased in the second tax year calculation because a gross lease was misconstrued as a net lease.

The record, including both the testimony of the taxpayer’s witnesses as well as a carefully documented appraisal, enabled the appellate court to see that the initial decision erred on all three points.  The taxpayer was fortunate that the three-judge panel deciding the appeal was willing to carefully analyze such technical valuation issues, rather than defer to a tax tribunal judge.  Yet this successful outcome hinged on compelling recorded evidence.

In a third and similar Midwestern case, the appraiser had initially valued a retail property as stabilized and then deducted stabilization costs.  Most of those costs were to cure the property’s extreme deferred maintenance, with a small amount relating to the leasing of vacant space to achieve stabilized occupancy.

The tribunal decision erroneously adopted the interim value before applying the stabilization deductions, With a record very much like the first case, the appeals court recognized that the cost of curing the deferred maintenance had to be accounted for, yet inexplicably failed to order the deduction of the modest costs related to the property achieving stabilized occupancy.

The taxpayer’s counsel made excellent lemonade from this decision by pointing out to the government’s counsel that, undeniably, the decision was logically inconsistent, because if the costs to cure deferred maintenance had to be deducted, then the same was true of the costs to cure the excessive vacancy.

Additionally, the taxpayer’s counsel argued that given the costs of further appeals and the likelihood that the taxpayer would ultimately prevail, a sensible solution would be for the government to agree to the value with the deferred maintenance costs de-ducted.  In fact, the government ultimately did agree and settled with the taxpayer on that basis.

While this case provided the taxpayer with an excellent result, it shows that a compelling record is a necessary – but not always sufficient – condition to prevail.

MandellPhoto90

Stewart Mandell is a Partner and Tax Appeals Practice Group Leader, in the law firm of Honigman Miller Schwartz and Cohn LLP, the Michigan member of American Property Tax Counsel (APTC). He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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May
29

What's The Basis For Your Assessment?

Assessors must value only the 'sticks and bricks,' not the business enterprise.

What can Indiana assessors value for property tax purposes? The answer is simple – the fee simple interest and nothing more. Yet assessors stray from that straightforward rule with alarming frequency.

In valuing land and improvements, assessors are not permitted to assign value to personal property; that is assessed separately. They also must refrain from assessing intangible assets – which are non-taxable – or the business operations conducted on or within a property. Profits may be subject to corporate income tax, but not property tax.

The fee simple interest is the absolute, unencumbered ownership of the real property, the sticks and bricks, subject only to the limitations imposed by the governmental powers of taxation, eminent domain, police power, and escheat.

A fee simple interest means the owner retains the right to sell, lease or occupy the property. If the assessor values more than the fee simple interest, he or she has gone too far. Such assessments are not only erroneous as a matter of law, but also bad public policy because they result in double or otherwise illegal taxation.

Establishing Precedent

The Indiana Board of Tax Review, which oversees property tax appeals at the state level, has recognized that the market value and market value-in-use standards do not permit “assessors to assess things other than real property rights for ad valorem taxation.” In fact, the Indiana Tax Court has dismissed assessors’ efforts to value more than a property’s fee simple interest.

In 2013, the court rejected an assessor’s reliance on above-market contract rents to establish a commercial property’s value. The taxpayer based its rents on sale-leaseback transactions, which included an investment component, and thus sold more than ownership rights in property.

In an earlier ruling, the court agreed that “one should approach the rental data from [sale-leaseback] transactions with caution, taking care to ascertain whether the sales prices/contract rents reflect real property value alone, or whether they include the value of certain other economic interests.”

Indiana law requires assessors to determine a property’s true tax value, which for property other than agricultural land means the “market value-in-use of a property for its current use, as reflected by the utility received by the owner or by a similar user, from the property.”

Too often assessors misunderstand and misapply this standard by seeking to value the taxpayer’s specific, on-site business operations.

Profitability is Irrelevant

Even if the taxpayer’s business is successful, the building in which its business is regularly conducted must be valued no differently than a similar, vacant building. Consider this ex-ample:

In an industrial park, two 10-year-old buildings sit side-by-side, identical in size, shape, condition, construction materials and workmanship. The same external or economic factors impact both properties’ values.

On the assessment date, an extremely profitable business uses Building A at full capacity and around the clock. In contrast, Building B is vacant, though it had previously served the same general purpose as Building A. Despite the owner’s best efforts, no business is conducted on the property.

Objective, reliable market evidence undisputedly indicates that the true tax value of the fee simple interest of Building B is $1 million as of the date of value.

What is the indicated value of the fee simple interest of Building A? It’s (fee) simple: $1 million.

How can that be, especially when business is going gangbusters inside Building A? The answer is that we are not valuing that business activity. In an arm’s length transaction, assuming a fair sale occurs, a reasonable and prudent third party looking to acquire either building would pay no more than the value of the sticks and bricks – $1 million – regardless of the profitability or lack thereof of business operations conducted there.

Let’s further assume that the owner of Building A was instead the third-party buyer, faced with the same choice of two identical buildings, one vacant and the other occupied for profitable uses.

Even knowing with near certainty that its business operations would be remarkably lucrative, the buyer would not pay $1 more for either property than the market would bear. According to the market, both properties are valued at $1 million.

The buyer is not acquiring a trade name or workforce, or the seller’s trademarks, trade secrets, machinery and equipment, customer lists, licenses or contracts. It is acquiring land, a building, and yard improvements, and the value of those for both buildings is the same.

Nobody said determining the fair value of property is always easy. But in Indiana it should always be fee simple.

Brent Auberry

Brent A. Auberry is a Partner in the Indianapolis law firm of Faegre Baker Daniels LLP, the Indiana member of the 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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Jan
12

Michigan Provides Property Tax Lessons for Big Box Retail

"Probably the most important concept affirmed in these Michigan decisions is that assessors must value big box properties based on their value-in-exchange and not their value-in-use."

Owners of big box retail buildings can take lessons from Michigan on the proper way to value these large, free-standing stores for property tax purposes. The state’s well-developed tax law offers a clear model that is applicable in any state that bases its property tax valuation assessments on the fee simple, value-in-exchange standard.

Many states, including Michigan, base real estate taxation on the market value of a property’s fee simple interest using value-in-exchange principles. In other words, a property’s taxable value is its market value, and market value is commonly considered the property’s probable selling price in a cash-equivalent, arms-length transaction involving willing, knowledgeable parties, neither of whom is under duress.

In recent years, the Michigan Tax Tribunal has decided with remarkable consistency a dozen cases involving big box stores. In 2014, the Michigan Court of Appeals affirmed two of these Tax Tribunal decisions, recognizing that the Tribunal’s key rulings in this area rested on established law.

Probably the most important concept affirmed in these Michigan decisions is that assessors must value big box properties based on their value-in-exchange and not their value-in-use. Assessors and appraisers hired by local Michigan governments repeatedly — and improperly — reached value conclusions based on value-in-use rather than value-in-exchange principles.

The violation of this fundamental point was not obvious from a cursory review of the valuation evidence. For example, the assessor’s evidence included both big box property sales with nigh per-square-foot prices and big box properties with high rental rates. Consequently, for the Michigan Tribunal to decide these cases correctly, taxpayers needed to present evidence, including from expert witnesses, which convincingly established the following:

  1. Each big box retailer either builds or remodels its stores to be consistent with the retailer’s marketing, branding and merchandising operations (built-to-suit);
  2. When a big box property sells, the buyer will spend substantial dollars reimaging the property so that it conforms to the new owner’s appearance, layout and other specifications;
  3. Given that big box properties can be costly to build because of their built-to-suit nature, and that the subsequent purchasers will make substantial modifications at significant cost, these properties sell for far less than their construction cost; and
  4. Actual sales confirmed that these properties sell for far less than construction cost.

With evidence establishing each of these points, the Michigan Tribunal has repeatedly recognized that taxable value for a big box property must reflect its value-in-exchange.

For example, the Tribunal could grasp that a sale would not reflect market value if the property had a rental rate designed to compensate the developer for construction to the retailer’s specifications, rather than a rent negotiated between a landlord and tenant for an existing building.

Similarly, with such evidence the Michigan Tribunal could discern that a sale would not reflect market value if the original owner/user of the property sold and leased back the space. A sale-leaseback is typically a financing transaction between two parties with multiple relationships (landlord/buyer and seller/tenant) that are different from an arms-length transaction. That means the rent in a sale-leaseback does not reflect the property’s market rent, which would be used in an income approach to determine value. Similarly, the sale price in such a transaction is not evidence of market value.

Likewise, the Michigan Tribunal recognized that if the assessor used leases with above-market rents to value these properties, it would impermissibly be valuing something other than the property’s fee-simple interest. This is important because it applies anytime a property with above-market rent is used as either a comparable sale or a rent comparable.

Finally, the Michigan Tribunal rejected the claim that each property’s highest and best use as improved was the continued use by the specific retailer that occupied the property. Generally, highest and best use is that which is legally permissible, financially feasible, maximally productive, and physically possible.

To define that use as the continued use by the retailer occupying the property would improperly make the value depend on the identity of the property’s owner. Additionally, it would lead to a value conclusion that reflected the value of the property to that owner, or its value in-use. Thus, the Michigan Tribunal concluded that the highest and best use was simply retail use.

Michigan’s many recent big box property tax decisions spotlight issues applicable to many types of properties, wherever the law requires assessors to value properties based on the market value of a property’s fee simple interest. Perhaps the most important takeaway is that in such cases, taxpayers need to provide evidence from appraisers and other experts to carefully document a property’s market value, and where that value is significantly less than construction cost, explain why this is true.

MandellPhoto90

Stewart Mandell is a Partner and Tax Appeals Practice Group Leader, in the law firm of Honigman Miller Schwartz and Cohn LLP, the Michigan member of American Property Tax Counsel (APTC). He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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Nov
18

How Government Machinations Can Slash Property Tax Liability

Taxpayers and tax professionals researching market conditions to determine fair market value should consider any impending government actions. Even a rumor of a government project that would require acquisition of a property through eminent domain, or would impose restrictions on future use, can reduce the property's market value and taxable value.

Property values begin to suffer even before community leaders approve the final plans or begin work on such a project. That's because the belief that the project will occur places a cloud on the property owner's ability to sell and on the price attainable in a sale.

A potential buyer would be reluctant to acquire a property that will be involved in future condemnation litigation, with its inherent costs and delays, nor would a buyer welcome the uncertainty that those plans place on the property's future use.

The government taking may not involve acquisition of the property as a whole. Rather, it may remove some rights of use through restricting zoning, creation of conservation corridors or the diversion or rerouting of traffic, for example.

The property value declines because the wheels are turning to take away some of the rights of ownership, perhaps as much as 100 percent of those rights. The property owner carries the burden of convincing the taxing authority of diminished value resulting from rumored or pending acts of government.

Fair market value determinations must match reality. A title search would not reveal the threat of a government taking, but the valuation process cannot assume clear title in the face of the cloud imposed by the contemplated taking of some of the owner's bundle of rights.

An array of public improvements has the potential to affect property values, with an equally wide range of implications for taxable value. "They sky is falling because a highway is coming through here someday" is at the extreme, but other property owners may learn of the future imposition of a conservation easement on coastal properties, or a restriction on land use, allowable sign dimensions, or other rights. Any of these limitations would have a direct and immediate effect on value.

Calculate the damage

When the reality of a government action hits, it may take up to 100 percent of the property's fair market value. The taxpayer should weigh the seriousness of the threat and the probability and timing of it actually occurring. Then the taxpayer should measure the weighted estimate against the value of the property without the threat.

If the property is in "the path of progress," questions to consider in determining its value are: Who will buy it? What is its anticipated economic life? And what purpose will it serve?

First, determine the seriousness of the threat. What is the likelihood of it occurring? Next, calculate the remaining life of the present use of the property in the face of the impending government action. If it is going to happen, when will that be?

In the case of projected highway takings, the probability is high. Once announced, the highway's completion is almost assured. The present use has a limited and uncertain life.

Market observations show that buyers avoid properties in the path of progress. The development of a highway project is a time-consuming process that can hang over a property for years, suppressing value.

Another diminishing value aspect of an impending road taking is that the property/s neighbors may defer, or altogether cease, to maintain their properties, a condition sometimes called "condemnation blight." Broken windows won't be replaced, leaking roofs won't get patched and buyers won't buy. Buyers will purchase, however, a competing property unthreatened by condemnation.

Regulatory threats

Anticipated or threatened taking for regulatory reasons likewise diminishes market value. Suppressed industrial expansion is one example, such as when a local authority announces it doesn't want noise or the use of industrial-use pollutants in proximity to a new residential development.

The force of regulation frequently drives industrial uses away from new residential development or expanding metropolitan uses. Community leaders may deem junkyards or outdoor storage undesirable and force those uses away. Forcing such uses away from the metropolitan area threatens future use of local properties, and therefore limits property value.

Taxpayers need to help taxing authorities understand that the portion of the government that weakens property values by taking away property rights should suffer the resulting loss of property taxes.

Wallach90Jerome Wallach is the senior partner in The Wallach Law Firm based in St. Louis, Missouri. The firm is the Missouri member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys. Jerry Wallach can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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