Menu

Property Tax Resources

Nov
17

Does Your Property Tax Assessment Reflect COVID-19's Long-Term Challenges?

Here are a number of approaches to defending against excessive tax assessments.

Countless companies have seen their top and bottom lines decimated by COVID-related shutdowns, travel restrictions and changing consumer preferences since the start of the pandemic. Yet for many taxpayers, property tax values have changed little or even increased.

Many of these taxpayers have been surprised to receive property tax bills that do not reflect the real and lingering economic challenges that the retail, hospitality, office and other industries have, are, and will continue to face. These taxpayers – and even those in industries better suited to weather the storm – should give special attention to ensuring they receive fair and reasonable assessments.

Observe Valuation Dates, Notices and Appeal Deadlines

With a large percentage of employees working remotely, together with an inconsistent postal service, it is more important than ever to have dedicated employees and knowledgeable property tax professionals reviewing property value assessments annually and filing timely protests when warranted. Failure to receive a tax valuation notice rarely excuses a missed protest deadline, so it is vital to know and comply with applicable deadlines.

Many property tax bills issued in 2020 were based on statutory valuation dates that preceded the emergence of COVID-19. For instance, assessors working under a valuation date of Oct. 1, 2019, or January 1, 2020, were quick to tell taxpayers to "wait until next year" before assessments could reflect any impact from COVID-19.

Not surprisingly, some assessors are now arguing that the pandemic was temporary and that its worst effects have passed. In some jurisdictions, assessors simply carried forward the prior year's cost-based value with no adjustments to account for additional depreciation or functional and economic obsolescence. In other cases, assessors have relied on pre-pandemic sales during the relevant tax cycle to justify increases over the preceding tax year.

Many locales had few sales in the early stages of the pandemic, and in these cases, the assessor may downplay or entirely ignore the actual impact of COVID-19 on market values. In contesting assessments in each of these cases, it is helpful to not only demonstrate the immediate difficulties that began in March 2020, but also the pandemic's lingering effects on the taxpayer's current and future operations.

Although the pandemic has affected all industries, certain sectors face unique challenges that will persist well beyond the initial virus surges and vaccine rollouts. These include, but are not limited to, brick and mortar retailers competing with ever-expanding e-commerce, office buildings competing with flexible work options including remote work, and hotels competing for elusive business travel in a cost-cutting environment. Some of these challenges are trends that began long before the pandemic, such as the slow death of enclosed malls as consumers increasingly favor lifestyle centers and online shopping.

COVID-19 Influences by Property Sector

Retail. Since the early 2000's, e-commerce's share of total retail sales has increased each year. The pandemic accelerated that trend, arguably by years, when people who had long resisted shopping online no longer had the same in-store options, and experienced online shoppers became more comfortable buying things like groceries and large-ticket items online.

These evolving shopping habits certainly affect the desirability and value of retail real estate, especially of those buildings constructed before the scope of today's e-commerce world could be contemplated. Landlords must now think outside the box when re-tenanting shopping centers, often filling vacancies with restaurants, service and entertainment concepts. These uses can create parking, zoning and other challenges for centers built for traditional retail.

In the case of big box stores, companies such as Walmart are looking at converting portions of existing stores to warehouse or fulfillment space for e-commerce. All these changes to keep up with the rapidly evolving marketplace shine a light on the functional and economic obsolescence present in many retail properties.

Office. Office landlords are also facing rapid market evolution, including an accelerating trend toward more remote and flexible work options. The pandemic made Zoom meetings ubiquitous and gave employees a taste, and perhaps a future expectation, of more work-from-home opportunities.

In light of the Delta variant's spread, many large companies have delayed their anticipated returns to the office, with Google now postponing its return until at least January 2022. Although some of the pandemic's effects on office occupancy have already occurred, the full impact will continue to play out as leases expire and companies reevaluate the volume and design of office space they require.

Hospitality. The hotel and travel industry suffered some of COVID-19's most immediate and devastating financial casualties. Leisure and business travel ground to a near halt, with hotel stays and flight counts falling to once-unimaginable lows. Corporate travel has yet to make a meaningful recovery and remains at a fraction of pre-pandemic levels. Throughout the country, corporations are cutting back on travel budgets as they weigh its costs and health risks against alternatives such as video conferencing.

Business travel and events are unlikely to return to pre-pandemic levels until 2024, according to a recent American Hotel & Lodging Association survey. Although the leisure travel industry benefitted from pent-up demand during the summer of 2021, the Delta variant has undermined that temporary resurgence. And even with the recent increase in leisure travel, airplane traffic is still well below 2019 levels.

These are just a few of the industries that will continue to see COVID-19 weigh down their businesses and property values. Property and business owners should closely review their property tax values to make sure assessments adequately reflect the specific challenges affecting their properties, to include the pandemic's immediate, ongoing and future financial impact.

Aaron D. Vansant is a partner in the law firmDonovanFingar LLC, the Alabama member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.
Continue reading
Apr
14

Unwelcome Property Tax Surprises in D.C.

Insights into managing real property tax liabilities in the nation's capital.

After the tumult and disruptions of 2020, the last thing taxpayers need is another surprise. Our society craves predictability more than ever before, and commercial real estate owners want predictability in their property taxes. 

In the District of Columbia, commercial real estate owners keen to make their future expenses more predictable can start by familiarizing themselves with the full gamut of real property liabilities. In addition to the standard annual property tax, the District imposes a variety of charges on real estate that vary by the property's location, use and payment history. 

Managing these real estate charges can help a taxpayer budget for upcoming expenses and minimize the risk of incurring unplanned costs. What follows is a primer to help taxpayers manage real property tax liabilities in the District: 

Start with the basics 

The DC Office of Tax and Revenue (OTR) recently launched MyTax. DC.gov, a new taxpayer website intended to streamline the tax assessment and billing processes. This single portal offers insight into taxes on individual income, businesses and real property, as well as fees administered by OTR. 

The site features self-service tools that enable taxpayers to review and pay property tax bills online, view assessment histories, apply for tax relief benefits, request mailing address changes and submit mixed-use declarations, among other features. While this centralized system should help to organize the billing and payment processes, it offers little information about the District's fees and may leave owners still wondering: What are these charges? 

The BID tax 

Many commercial property owners in the District incur a business improvement district (BID) tax. The District defines a business improvement district as "a self-taxing district established by property owners to enhance the economic vitality of a specific commercial area." Each of the District's 11 BIDs assess a surcharge to the real property tax liability, which the District collects and then returns to the BID. Each BID dictates how it spends its funds, typically supporting the community with programs promoting cleanliness, maintenance, safety and economic development. 

The DC Code establishes BIDs and their geographic boundaries. These provisions empower each BID to establish its tax rates. How those taxes are calculated varies by BID. For example, an individual district may base its tax on the number of rooms in a hotel, a building's square footage and a percentage of the tax assessment value. Thankfully, these organizations often have robust, informative websites that can be useful resources for property owners. 

As with real property taxes, a property owner that fails to pay its BID tax on time and in full can incur penalties and interest charges on its tax account. Therefore, mismanaging a property's BID tax can lead to pricey consequences. 

Public space or vault rent 

To optimize the operation of an asset, many property owners rent-adjacent, District-owned space known as "public space." The District categorizes these offerings as either "vault space," which is below ground level; or above-ground "café space." Examples include outdoor café space, above or below-grade parking and areas for storage of utilities. 

The formula for calculating vault rent is Land Rate x Vault Area x Vault Rate. Therefore, changes in a property's taxable land assessment value will result in a change in the rental charge for associated public space. Unlike BID taxes, public-space rent is charged to the renter as a separate bill. This requires extra attention to avoid those pesky penalty and interest charges. 

Special assessments 

A variety of supplementary special assessments may arise to fund city-wide projects. Examples of these charges include a ballpark fee, Southeast Water and Sewer Improvement fee and the New York Avenue fee. The levy of these assessments is governed by specific criteria set forth in the related DC Code provision. 

Given the often-complex nature of the code, taxpayers may choose to consult a tax or legal professional to help navigate these less-common levies. 

Credits 

A credit on a property owner's tax account will likely come as a welcomed surprise, but the taxpayer should give these circumstances the same scrutiny they would give to unexpected charges. Understand that a credit is not free money, nor is it always an accurate designation. 

If a credit appears on the account, it will likely stem from a prior overpayment. This may reflect a reduction in tax liability that occurred after a bill was issued. Other possible causes include a DC Superior Court Refund Order, a dual payment from a third-party vendor or a prepayment of the full year tax liability on a first-half tax bill. 

Before enjoying the benefit of the lowered tax liability, it is important to verify this credit is justified. If the credit was wrongfully applied, a taxpayer will still be liable for the remaining balance. The District may issue a corrected bill for the outstanding amount, or the balance may appear on a future tax bill. A failure to remedy this balance can once again lead to penalty and interest charges. 

Penalties and interest 

The most unwanted surprise charges are penalties and interest. These charges can arise under several circumstances such as when the taxpayer has failed to file a yearly income and expense form with the District, or after missed, late or incomplete payments. 

Penalties and interest can cause a headache for taxpayers. The District will apply any future payment to penalties and interest before the account's principal balance. Therefore, it is easy for a small charge to cause a cascading liability if it is not timely addressed. In addition, while a taxpayer may petition for these charges to be waived, this process is often lengthy and the issuance of such a waiver is at the sole discretion of the OTR. 

The prospect of navigating these charges may seem overwhelming but it is a vital part of owning and managing real estate in the District. Therefore, it is best to learn the tax rules or consult with a local tax attorney who has experience dealing with these issues, as well as with the corresponding governmental entities. A knowledgeable expert can sort through this complicated web of liabilities, penalties and errors.

Sydney Bardouil is an associate at the law firm, Wilkes Artis, the District of Columbia member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.
Continue reading
Mar
16

COVID-19's Heavy Toll on Property Values

Georgia taxpayers should start preparing arguments to lower their property tax assessments.

Few commercial properties emerged with unscathed values from the harsh economic climate of 2020. Yet Georgia and many jurisdictions like it valued commercial real estate for property taxation that year with a valuation date of Jan. 1, 2020 – nearly three months before COVID-19 thrust the U.S. economy into turmoil.

This means governments taxed commercial properties for all of 2020 on values that ignored the severe economic consequences those properties endured for more than 75% of the calendar year. When property owners begin to receive notices of 2021 assessments, which Georgia assessors typically mail out in April through June each year, property owners can at last seek to lighten their tax burden by arguing for reduced assessments.

The pandemic hurt some real estate types more than others, however, and with both short-term effects and some that may continue to depress asset values for years. For taxpayers contesting their assessments, the challenge will be to show the combination of COVID-19 consequences affecting their property, and the extent of resulting value losses.

The experiences of 2020 can serve as a roadmap for valuations in the current year and, in certain settings, in future years.

A three-pronged attack

COVID-19 can inflict a three-pronged assault on a commercial property's value, and taxpayers should explore each of these areas for evidence of loss as they build a case for a lower assessment.

Widespread losses. The first prong of the trident may be a drop in value stemming from an overall decline in the market. Like the Great Recession of 2008, the pandemic has reduced many property values by impeding economic performance in general.

Reduced income and cash flow, for example, can indicate reduced property value. Valuing the property with a market and income analysis approach can reveal this type of loss.

Reduced functionality. Is the property's layout or format less functional than models that occupiers came to prefer during the pandemic? In Georgia, functional impairments may have curable and incurable components beyond normal obsolescence. In other words, when changing occupier demand has rendered a property obsolete, there may be some features the owner can address to restore utility and increase value.

Adverse economic trends. Economic factors occurring outside the property can suppress property value. Georgia tax law recognizes that economic trends can reshape market demand and render some property models obsolete. This economic obsolescence can be short term while the economy is down or a permanent change.

Subsector considerations

Retail. Big-box stores, malls and inline shopping centers had already experienced a functional decline and an economic downturn, both of which accelerated as shopping habits changed during the pandemic. Big box properties were already becoming functionally obsolete as retailers reduced instore inventory requirements and shrank showrooms, which left little demand for the large-format buildings.

Moreover, outside economic factors such as declining instore sales, competition with ecommerce retailers, and high carrying costs have also undercut the value of these properties. The pandemic accelerated this decline, and it is unlikely there will be much, if any, recovery.

Hospitality. The pandemic has severely diminished travel and vacations, and hotel vacancies have skyrocketed. The income yield per room is declining. Operating costs have increased per visitor as amenities have been shut, curtailed or reconfigured. Many hotels have eliminated in-house dining and offer only room service.

The cost to maintain kitchen services is disproportionate to the number served. This decline is solely a product of COVID-19 and, over time, will revert to near normal. Some increased costs may remain elevated, such as extra cleaning supplies and labor to disinfect the property.

Office. COVID-19's effect on office buildings, especially high-rises, may be long-lasting. Fully leased buildings have seen less of a direct affect, but properties with significant unleased space are already hurting. Demand will diminish as more employees work remotely and companies consolidate with shared workspaces, motivated to reduce occupancy cost. This trend will produce both functional and economic effects on the value of office buildings.

Industrial. To a lesser extent, some manufacturing plants can suffer industry-specific economic consequences of COVID-19. Reduced travel has compelled airlines to reduce flights and sideline aircraft, reducing the demand for new and replacement aircraft. Less aircraft being built reduces the value of aircraft manufacturing plants, including the buildings that house them. Likewise, oil production, storage and consumption is down, due to reductions in leisure and business travel and commuting as more people work remotely. Excess capacity for drilling, storage and processing petroleum makes those facilities temporarily obsolete.

Multifamily residential. COVID-19 may have had little negative effect on multifamily complexes. During the pandemic, the supply of available housing on the market has contracted, driving up rents. As a result, apartments remain in high demand from renters and investors, although some areas may be overbuilt.

Despite high occupancy rates, properties may have non-paying or late-paying tenants. It would seem that yields per square foot may be higher, which would suggest increased property values for apartment complexes now. This is not always the case, however, and multifamily values must be considered individually.

Expect resistance

COVID-19 has also affected the mindset of taxing authorities, whose operating costs have remained the same or increased during the crisis. Taxing authorities will be reluctant to decrease tax revenue and will push back against property owners' arguments for reducing taxable values.

Just as individuals have taken personal health precautions against COVID-19, property owners must take precautions to protect the financial health of their properties from the virus' detrimental effects. All commercial property owners in Georgia should carefully examine assessment notices. Wise owners should strongly consider consulting with property tax experts to determine whether to file an appeal.

Lisa Stuckey
Brian Morrissey
Brian J. Morrissey and Lisa Stuckey are partners in the Atlanta law firm of Ragsdale Beals Seigler Patterson & Gray LLP, the Georgia member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.
Continue reading
Jan
12

Reduce High Occupancy Costs

Closely examine your 2021 tax assessment to ensure your property's valuation isn't excessive.

   E-commerce was here to stay even before the pandemic devastated small businesses and placed an even greater premium on technology. In the changed landscape, lowering occupancy costs by reducing property taxes is one of the most important steps businesses can take to remain competitive.

  Stay-at-home orders still prevent many shoppers from visiting their favorite brick-and-mortar stores, while fear of contagion exacerbates consumers' reluctance to shop in person. Regardless of customer traffic, however, retailers still incur fixed costs including insurance, enterprise software, property taxes and, arguably, rent.

  Online-only retailers' occupancy costs are much lower, making it difficult for small brick-and-mortar businesses to compete. Put differently, sales taxes decline with reduced sales but property taxes do not. Landlords and tenants in triple net leases often fail to examine property taxes, but the survival of both may depend on reducing this cost.

  Other costs such as insurance and the enterprise software needed to run the business generally lie beyond a small business' control and do not diminish with reduced business volume. The active 2020 hurricane season certainly has not reduced insurance costs. During the pandemic, some landlords have deferred or forgiven rent, but this forbearance provides no long-term solution to the challenges e-commerce poses.

Mounting pressures

  The threat that high ad valorem taxes pose to pandemic battered small businesses is compounded by, and interrelated with, the e-commerce threat. Small businesses face enormous challenges in competing online with major brands such as Amazon and Wal-Mart, which command a far greater web presence than small mom-and-pop retailers.

  E-commerce's challenge to traditional retail will not end with the pandemic. The bulk of retail sales still occur in stores, with online purchases peaking in the second quarter of 2019 at just 16% of total U.S. retail sales, according to the Commerce Department. That percentage slowed to 14% in the third quarter.

  COVID-19 has accelerated the trend to "Buy Online, Pick Up In Store" (BOPIS). Pre-pandemic, BOPIS offerings were already growing as shoppers used it to avoid instore browsing time and shipping charges. A 2018 study reported 90% of surveyed online shoppers stated high shipping fees and home delivery longer than two days would likely deter them from completing an online purchase. Even before the pandemic, Amazon's rapid delivery model was pressuring conventional retailers to compete by accelerating shipping times.

  BOPIS allows retailers to blend online and in-store customer engagement while offering a more convenient way to shop. COVID-19 accelerated this trend as shoppers sought to minimize interpersonal contact during store visits. Retailers, however, need to be certain that applicable restrictive covenants permit BOPIS, since shopping centers often limit tenants' right to use common space. Further, traditional methods of valuing properties for tax purposes struggle to recognize and separate the intangible and untaxable value of web presence from the value of a physical location that serves as a pick-up point.

  Black Friday and Cyber Monday 2020 illustrate the evolving relationship between brick-and-mortar stores and e-commerce. RetailNext reported foot traffic to physical stores on Thanksgiving through the following Sunday decreased by 48% from 2019, while spending per customer increased more than 36%.

  Mall traffic tracker, Sensormatic Solutions, concluded that online ordering and social-distancing restrictions made shoppers more "purposeful" on their Black Friday trips. Adobe Analytics reported that Black Friday saw $9 billion in U.S. online sales, a nearly 22% increase year over year that made it the second-largest online spending day. Cyber Monday 2020 brought the largest shopping day in American history with $10.8 billion in volume, a 15.2% increase over 2019, Adobe reported. Adobe also noted that Black Friday curbside pickup increased 52% year over year.

Shared interests

  Landlords and tenants must recognize the mutual harm of high occupancy costs and guard against unwarranted property taxes as local governments seek to shore up their finances. Every nickel counts when retailers are under economic pressure just to keep their doors open. Years of remaining lease term is of cold comfort to a landlord whose tenant is forced to close by reduced revenue and high occupancy costs.

  Some short-sighted landlords ignore the property tax burden placed on their triple net tenants until a renewal is imminent since the landlord's costs are not directly impacted.  Where possible, a good lease on multitenant properties will address tax challenges and discourage taxes from being viewed as a mere pass-through expense. Further, prudent landlords should help reduce tax costs and avoid being forced to negotiate reduced rent to keep small businesses operating. Most leases do not include a provision permitting tenants to challenge ad valorem property taxes. Similarly, many state statutes only permit property owners, not tenants, to challenge taxes.

  Most assessors have not yet recognized COVID-19's impact on retail stores, primarily because the valuation date for most properties preceded the pandemic's full impact on retail. That will change in 2021 in many jurisdictions. Similarly, the trend toward BOPIS will increase the intangible value of online presence, generally not subject to ad valorem taxation, and decrease the importance of physical locations.

  COVID-19 is pressuring local governments to increase the property tax burden on small businesses. A recent survey found that municipal revenues are down 21% while expenses have increased 17% amid the pandemic. The survey reported 45% of mayors expect to see dramatic budget cuts for education, while at least one-third expect to see drastic cuts in parks and recreation, mass transit and roads. Only 36% of mayors expect to see a replacement of the businesses shuttered due to COVID-19.

  High property taxes will only exacerbate the municipal revenue problem. A short-term remedy to municipal finances, higher property taxes, risks the permanent closure of many small businesses and increase the burden on remaining brick-and-mortar retailers. Failing to address the problem will only accelerate the decline of physical stores and eliminate their local jobs and taxes.

Morris Ellison is a partner in the Charleston, S.C., office of the law firm Womble Bond Dickinson (US) LLP. The firm is the South Carolina member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.
Continue reading
Dec
20

Tough Burden of Proof in Tarheel State

Owners in North Carolina must satisfy legal tests in arguments for reduced taxable valuations.

   Notice of a commercial property's revaluation to an increased taxable value can deliver a shock to the taxpayer. Although actual tax liability will depend on the completed valuation, new budgets and a tax rate that is still to be set, the taxpayer fears that an inflated value will result in an unfairly high property tax bill.
The typical taxpayer response is to assert the new value is too high, particularly for the larger assessment increases. The assertion alone, however, is not enough to change the valuation. While many jurisdictions have different burden of proof statutes, under North Carolina law, the onus is on taxpayers to prove specific criteria meriting a reduced assessment.
   Unfortunately, the state's valuation practices set the stage for assessor mistakes and inaccurate valuations. Unlike many jurisdictions, North Carolina only requires that real property subject to taxation be revalued every eight years, although recently most counties have opted to revalue every four years. In light of dramatic property value swings over the past decade or two, however, these lengthy gaps between valuations often result in significant increases, with assessments spiking by as much
as 40 percent.
   Undertaking a county-wide real property revaluation is a behemoth project for any taxing authority. Countless hours of factual investigation, analysis, and number crunching go into the process. Those involved are performing a necessary public function and do their best to get it right.
   Given the scope of a revaluation, lawmakers have set limitations to discourage taxpayers that simply disagree with the new assessment from demanding a full appeal and hearing based solely on the merits of the value. Aside from the time deadlines in the appeal process, a significant governor on the appeal process in North Carolina is the burden of proof.

Proof vs. persuasion
    In North Carolina, tax assessments are presumed correct. The State Supreme Court spelled out this premise in a 1975 case involving AMP Inc.'s appeal of the taxable valuation assessed on inventory stored at a Greensboro facility.
    In finding that AMP failed to prove its case, the Court encapsulated the burden of proof when a taxpayer attempts
to rebut the presumed correctness of an assessment. This is a presumption of fact that may be rebutted by producing evidence that tends to show that both an arbitrary or illegal method of valuation was used and that the assessment substantially exceeded the true value of the property.
    A taxpayer appealing an assessment must come forward with evidence tending to show both of these conditions: that the method used to establish the assessed value was wrong, and that the value derived from that method was substantially greater than the true value (the assessed value was unreasonably high).
   The burden is not one of persuasion but one of production. In layman's terms, the burden is not to persuade the decision maker that the taxpayer's opinion of value is correct and the assessor's is wrong. Rather, the taxpayer must show simply that there is evidence both that the assessor used an incorrect method in its appraisal, and that the resulting value is substantially greater than it should be.
   Once the taxpayer has produced evidence to rebut the presumption of correctness, the burden of coming forward with evidence shifts to the county. The assessing entity must establish that its method did, in fact, produce true value; that the assessed value is not substantially higher than called for by the statutory formula; and that it is reasonable. The latter is a burden of persuasion, meaning the assessor must convince the decision maker that it applied a correct method and arrived at true value.
   The terms "arbitrary" and "illegal," which the Court used in AMP in referring to the taxpayer's burden of showing the assessor used an improper method, sound a bit harsher than they need be. The courts simply hold that a property valuation methodology is arbitrary or illegal if it fails to produce "true value" as defined by tax law in General Statute 105, Section 283. That section defines true value as meaning market value. Market value is the price estimated in terms of money at which the property would change hands between a willing and financially able buyer and a willing seller, neither being under any compulsion to buy or to sell and both having reasonable knowledge of all the uses to which the property is adapted and for which it is capable of being used."
    A variety of methods have been found to be illegal or arbitrary, such as failing to consider the effect of obsolescence in the face of testimony of obsolescence and relying only on the cost approach to value income-producing property. A tax professional will be knowledgeable of many other examples.
   Given the burdens inherent in challenging assessments, a taxpayer planning to appeal its assessed value needs to be prepared to assemble and present information supporting its value opinion. In addition, the taxpayer should obtain and understand the taxing authority's method of arriving at the assessed value, in order to challenge that method as may be appropriate.
   At the local level, taxpayers have traditionally focused arguments on value alone, but, as an appeal reaches higher levels, the burden can become a critical evidentiary obstacle to overcome. Failure to get over this initial hurdle can result in dismissal of the appeal without the actual assessed value being considered on its merits.

Gib Laite is a partner in the law firm Williams Mullen, the North Carolina member of American Property Tax Counsel (APTC), the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.
Continue reading
Jun
09

Navigating D.C.’s Tax Rate Maze

An evolving and imperfect system has increased property taxes for many commercial real estate owners.

If you own or manage real property in the District of Columbia and are wondering why your real estate tax bill has gone up in recent years, you are not alone. One common culprit is rising assessed value, but that may not be the main or only source of an increase.

A less obvious contributor may be a new, different, or incorrect tax rate. Since tax rates vary greatly depending on a property's use, staying diligent when it comes to your real estate's tax class and billed rate is critical.

The District of Columbia applies differing tax rates to residential, commercial, mixed-use, vacant and blighted properties. Why is this important? Because the classification can make a considerable difference in annual tax liability – even for two properties with identical assessment values.

For example, a multifamily complex assessed at $20 million incurs a tax liability of $170,000 per year while the same property, if designated as blighted, incurs an annual tax liability almost twelve times greater at $2 million. Therefore, the assessed value is just one piece of the puzzle.

Keeping a sharp eye on a property's tax bill for the accuracy of any tax rate changes is paramount. This requires knowledge of current rates, the taxpayers' legal obligations, and how to remedy or appeal any issues that arise.

New Rates for Commercial Property

Property owners in the District should be aware of a recent change to tax rates on commercial real estate. The Fiscal 2019 Budget Support Emergency Act increased rates for commercial properties starting with Tax Year 2019 bills.

Prior to the enactment of this legislation, the District taxed commercial properties with a blended rate of 1.65% for the first $3 million in assessed value and 1.85% for every dollar above $3 million. The new measure replaces the blended rate with a tiered system, taxing a commercial property at the rate corresponding to the level in which its assessed value falls. Those levels are:

Tier One, for properties assessed at $0 to $5 million, taxed entirely at 1.65%;

Tier Two, for properties assessed at $5 million to $10 million, taxed entirely at 1.77%; and

Tier Three, for properties assessed above $10 million, taxed entirely at 1.89%.

The residential tax rate for multifamily properties remained flat at 0.85%.

Mixed Use

The District of Columbia Code requires that real property be classified and taxed based upon use. Therefore, if a property has multiple uses, taxing entities must apply tax rates proportionally to the square footage of each use. However, it is ownership's legal obligation to annually report the property's uses by filing a Declaration of Mixed-Use form. Owners of properties with both residential and commercial portions should be hypersensitive to this issue.

The District typically mails the Declaration of Mixed-Use form to property owners in May, and the response is due 30 days thereafter. If the District fails to send a form to an owner, it is the owner's responsibility to request one. Remember, the owner must recertify the mixed-use asset each year. Failure to declare a property as mixed-use may result in the entire property including the residential portion being taxed at the commercial tax rate (up to 1.89%).

Vacant & Blighted Designation

If you have ever opened a property tax bill and faced a staggering 5% or 10% tax rate, congratulations, your property was taxed at one of the District's highest real estate tax rates.

Each year the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) and the Office of Tax and Revenue are charged with identifying and taxing vacant and blighted properties in the District. The D.C. Code defines vacant and blighted properties for this purpose, and there is a detailed process governing why and when DCRA may classify a property as vacant. Nonetheless, in each tax cycle DCRA wrongfully designates properties as vacant or blighted, so it is paramount that the taxpayer understands their appeal rights.

To successfully appeal a vacant property designation, an owner must comply with one of the specifically enumerated and highly technical exemptions. One such exemption applies if the property is actively undergoing renovation under a valid building permit. However, the taxpayer should consult with an attorney, as there may be other requirements to qualify for an exemption. An owner wishing to appeal this designation must file a Vacant Building Response form and provide all applicable supporting documentation to DCRA.

Moreover, an owner may appeal a property's blighted designation by demonstrating that the property is occupied or that it is not blighted. Since an appeal of a blighted designation requires a more detailed review of the condition of the property itself, photographic evidence must be used to supplement any documentation provided.

Fixing Erroneous Rates

When dealing with local government and statutory deadlines, time is not on the taxpayer's side. It is important that as soon as an error is identified, the property owner understands the next steps. In some situations, the D.C. code or official government correspondence will lay out the process precisely for the property owner, identifying the who, what, where, when, why and how's of appealing a property's tax designation. However, sometimes a taxpayer will receive a bill without explanation.

In both scenarios, it is best to consult with a local tax attorney.  These professionals have experience dealing with these issues, as well as with the corresponding governmental entities.  A knowledgeable counselor can be an invaluable resource to guide you through any tax issue.

Sydney Bardouil is an associate at the law firm of Wilkes Artis, the District of Columbia member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.
Continue reading
Apr
15

Property Tax Planning Delivers Big Savings

Ask the right questions, understand your rights and develop a strategy to avoid costly mistakes.

When it comes to property taxes, what you don't know can hurt you. Whether it is failing to meet a valuation protest deadline, ignorance of available exemptions or perhaps missing an error in the assessment records, an oversight can cost a taxpayer dearly. Understanding common mistakes — and consulting with local property tax professionals — can help owners avoid the pain of unnecessarily high property tax bills.

Think ahead on taxes

Many owners ignore property taxes until a valuation notice or tax bill arrives, but paying attention to tax considerations at other times can greatly benefit a taxpayer. For example, it's good practice to ask the following questions before purchasing real estate, starting a project or receiving a tax bill:

Does the property qualify for exemptions or incentives? Every state offers some form of property tax exemptions to specific taxpayers and property types. Examples include those for residential home-steads, charitable activities by some nonprofits and exemptions for pollution control equipment. Similarly, governments use partial or full property tax abatements in their incentive programs for enticing businesses to expand or relocate to their communities. While many of these programs are industry-specific, it is important to consider all of the taxpayer's potential resources and the costs and benefits of pursuing each.

In most cases, a taxpayer must claim an exemption or obtain an abatement in order to receive its benefits. Failing to timely do so may lead to the forfeiture of an applicable exemption. If the taxpayer becomes aware after the deadline that it may have qualified for an exemption, it is still prudent to speak with a local professional.

Once the exemption is in place, review the assessment each year to ensure it is properly applied. Additionally, taxpayers and their representatives should closely follow legislative action affecting the exemptions that may be available.

How will a sale or redevelopment affect the property's tax value? For instance, will the sale trigger a mandatory reassessment or perhaps remove a statutory value cap? If a change in use removes an exemption, will it trigger rollback taxes or liability equal to the amount of taxes previously excused under the exemption? Will the benefit of an existing exemption be lost for the following tax year?

Taxpayers that fail to ask these questions risk underestimating their tax bill, which can quickly under-mine an initial valuation analysis and actual return.

Learn whether the purchaser or developer must disclose the sales price or loan amount on the deed or other recorded instruments. If so, avoid overstating the sales price by including personal property, intangible assets or other deductible, non-real estate items. Assessors often use deed and mortgage records in determining or supporting assessed value, and it can be an uphill battle trying to argue later why a disclosed sales figure is not the real purchase price.

Don't assume, without further inquiry, that the tax value will stay unchanged following a sale; nor that it will automatically increase or decrease to the purchase price. In determining market value, the assessor may consider (or disregard) the sale in a variety of ways depending on the jurisdiction, transaction timing, arm's-length condition and other factors.

Perhaps the assessor will change the cost approach assumptions to chase a higher purchase price, or disregard a lower sales price suspected of being a distressed transaction. A local, knowledgeable adviser can help the taxpayer set reasonable expectations for future assessments following a sale or redevelopment.

Plan to review, challenge

Before the valuation notice or tax bill arrives, make a plan to review it and challenge any incorrect assessments within the time allowed. An advocate who thoroughly under-stands local assessment methodologies and appeal procedures can be invaluable in helping to craft and execute a response strategy.

The first hurdle in any property tax protest is learning the applicable deadlines. This can be more difficult than it appears, as local laws don't always require a valuation notice. For instance, some states omit sending notices if the value did not increase from the prior year. Additionally, many states reassess on a less-than-annual basis, although there may be different periods within the reassessment cycle in which appeals can be filed.

It is critical to understand the reassessment cycle and protest periods in every jurisdiction in which a taxpayer owns property. Missing a deadline or required tax payment can result in the dismissal of a valuation appeal, regardless of its merits.

The owner, or the company's agent, should understand not only appraisal methodology but also legal requirements governing the assessor. Is there a state-prescribed manual that dictates the application of the cost approach? Does the assessor use a market income approach to value certain property types?

In some jurisdictions, assessors reject the income approach to value if the owner fails to submit income in-formation by a specific date. In others, submitting income information may be mandatory.

With mass appraisal, assessors often make mistakes that will go undetected if not discovered by the taxpayer's team. Has the assessor's cost approach used the correct build-ing or industry classification, effective age of improvements, square footage, type of materials, number of plumbing fixtures, ceiling height, type of HVAC system, etc.?

Even one small error could skew the final value and should be timely brought to the assessor's attention, whether or not in a formal protest setting.

In addition to correcting the error for future assessments, the owner should determine whether it is entitled to a refund for previous taxes paid and, if so, timely file any refund petitions.

With countless jurisdictions and varying assessment statutes, it is unreasonable to expect a property owner to master property tax law. Yet with proper planning and local advisors, taxpayers can avoid pitfalls they may have otherwise overlooked.

Aaron Vansant is a partner at DonovanFingar LLC, the Alabama member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys​.
Continue reading
Mar
09

The Terrible T’s of Inventory: Timing and Taxes

​States that impose inventory taxes put their constituent businesses at a competitive disadvantage.

Inventory taxes pose an additional cost of doing business in more than a dozen states, and despite efforts to mitigate the competitive disadvantage the practice creates for many taxpayers, policymakers have yet to propose an equitable fix.

Virtually all states employ a property tax at the state or local level. The most common target is real property, which is land and land improvements; and tangible personal property such as fixtures, machinery and equipment.

Nine states also tax business inventory. Those are Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Arkansas,Mississippi, Kentucky, West Virginia, Maryland and Vermont. Another four states – Alaska, Michigan, Georgia and Massachusetts – partially tax inventory. In these 13 states, inventory tax contributes a significant portion of overall property tax collections.

From a policy standpoint, however, inventory tax is probably the least defensible form of property tax: It is the least transparent of business taxes; is "non-neutral," as businesses with larger inventories, such as retailers and manufacturers, pay more; and it adds insult to injury for businesses whose inventory is out of sync with finicky consumer buying habits.

A few fixes

Taxpayers have had few options in attempting to reduce inventory tax liability because an inventory's valuation is seldom easily disputed. So, modeling a classic game of cat and mouse, some enterprising businesses would move their inventory to the jurisdiction with the lowest millage, frantically shuttling property about before the lien date. Taxing jurisdictions eventually caught on, however, and many of these states adopted an averaging system whereby taxpayers must report monthly inventory values that are then averaged for the year. So much for gaming the timing of taxes.

The underlying problem is that imposing an inventory tax puts that state's businesses at a competitive disadvantage. At the same time, local jurisdictions cannot easily afford to give up the revenue generated by inventory taxes.

When West Virginia was contemplating phasing out its inventory tax, one state legislator pointed out that the proposal placed elected representatives in the predicament of telling educator constituents the state could not afford to pay them sufficiently, while turning to another group of business constituents and relieving them of a tax burden which would create a hole in the state's revenues.

Some states including Louisiana and Kentucky have implemented creative workarounds, such as giving income or corporate franchise tax credits to businesses to offset their inventory tax liability. But these imperfect fixes add uncertainty and unnecessary complexity to a state's tax code.

For instance, when Louisiana implemented a straightforward inventory tax credit in the 1990s, businesses paid local inventory tax and were reimbursed for the payments through a tax credit for their Louisiana corporation income/franchise tax liability. The state Department of Revenue fully refunded any excess tax credit.

Between 2005 and 2015, however, the state's liability more than doubled. In 2015, the Legislature imposed a $10,000 cap on the refundable amount of an inventory tax credit and allowed any unused portion of an excess tax credit to be carried forward for a period not to exceed five years. Then in 2016, lawmakers increased the fully refundable cap to $500,000 and adjusted how the excess tax credit could be taken, but left the carry-forward period unchanged. This has created another inventory tax timing problem: Businesses now lose any unclaimed excess tax credit at the end of that carry-forward period, and businesses have no assurances that the tax credit amounts won't be lowered or otherwise made less user-friendly the next time the state faces a fiscal crunch.

Kentucky recently implemented its own inventory tax credit system. Even less taxpayer friendly than Louisiana's approach, it provides only a nonrefundable and nontransferable credit against individual income tax, corporation income tax and limited liability entity tax. The state is phasing in the tax credit in 25% increments each year until it is fully claimable in 2021.

Texas has taken a different tack by offering businesses a limited, $500 exemption for inventory tax. Unadjusted for inflation since its implementation in 1997, however, the exemption for business personal property has lost relative value as the cost of living has increased. The Texas Taxpayers and Research Association recently evaluated Texas' inventory tax and found that the $500 exemption in today's dollars is equivalent to only $367 in 1997 dollars. The association further noted that a property valued at $500 generates, on average, a tax bill of $13, which is less than the likely cost of administering the tax. Not surprisingly and quite rightly, the association recommended increasing the amount of the exemption.

Clearly, these workarounds are not really working for this problem. What's the best solution for Louisiana, Kentucky, Texas and the rest of the inventory tax states? Join the rest of the crowd and simply abolish the inventory tax, as a task force created by the Louisiana Legislature recommended in 2016. No more cat and mouse games, no more paltry exemptions and no more convoluted tax credits. At least in this regard, businesses in all states would be on the same competitive footing.

Angela Adolph is a partner in the law firm of Kean Miller LLP, the Louisiana member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.
Continue reading
Feb
12

Atlanta: Undue Assessments May Be Coming

Here's what taxpayers should do if the tax controversy now brewing causes large property tax increases

Recent headlines questioning the taxable values of Atlanta-area commercial properties may threaten taxpayers throughout Fulton County with a heightened risk of increased assessments.

Changes in the Midtown Improvement District, which extends northward from North Avenue and along both sides of West Peachtree and eastward, are rapidly reshaping the Atlanta skyline. Multiple new buildings under construction rise 19 to 32 stories, ushering in more than 2,000 new apartment units as well as hotel and office uses.

Amid this intense construction, Fulton County tax assessors have come under fire in newspaper and broadcast news reports that showed assessed taxable values were well below the acquisition prices paid for many commercial properties. Both Atlanta and Fulton County have ordered audits to determine whether assessors consistently undervalued properties, resulting in lost revenue.

While it may be unsurprising that assessors failed to keep up with rapidly changing market pricing in a development hotspot like Midtown, the news coverage and government scrutiny may pressure assessors to increase commercial assessments across the board. Owners of both newly constructed and older properties should diligently review the county's tax assessment notices, sent out each spring, to determine whether they should appeal their assessed values.

Know the assessment process

Understanding the permissible approaches to valuation is key for the taxpayer to determine whether to appeal an assessment. The two most commonly used methods are the income approach and the market or sales comparison approach, both of which can be problematic if incorrectly applied by the county assessor.

Assessors typically value apartments and office buildings using the income approach. Initially, however, assessors use mass appraisal methods that may not reflect the specific financial realities of the individual property. Taxpayers should examine each of the various components of the county's income model and question whether each element of the formula is appropriately applied to their property.

By utilizing data from the market, has the assessor overestimated the rental rates for the property? Property owners should analyze and discern whether it is beneficial to provide the previous year's rent roll to the assessor in order to argue that the county's model rental rate is inaccurate for their property. An older complex or building may have new competition from a recently built property offering up-to-date amenities. Not only will the older property be at a disadvantage to charge premium rents, but the newer construction is also driving its taxes higher.

Has the assessor used a market occupancy rate that does not correctly indicate the property's occupancy level? In order for the income approach to accurately achieve both physical and economic occupancy, the vacancy and collection loss should take into account both the occupancy rate and concessions that the owner provides to renters to maximize occupancy. Again, in a fluctuating market with new construction competing against old, occupancy rates can be affected.

In using market data, has the assessor underestimated the expenses for the property? Perhaps the expense ratio used is inappropriate for the property. If so, property owners can demonstrate this by providing the previous year's income and expense statement to the assessor, differentiating their property from the mass appraisal model.

A common area of disagreement is the capitalization rate. A capitalization rate is the ratio of net operating income to property asset value. Has the assessor used a cap rate that is derived incorrectly from sales of properties that are not comparable to the taxpayer's property?

Has the assessor properly added in the effective tax rate to the reported base cap rate from the comparable sales because the real estate taxes were not included in his allowable expenses? If the effective tax rate is not added to the base cap rate, and real estate taxes are not included in the expenses, the result is a lower cap rate, and thus, an artificially and incorrectly higher value. An analysis of the accurate application of the sales comparison or market approach is helpful in making the determination of the appropriate cap rate.

Many factors go in to determining if sales are sufficiently similar and can be relied upon. The comparable sales used should be of a similar age as the subject property. Older properties usually command a lower price per unit or lower price per square foot than newly constructed properties.

The comparable sales used should be similar in square footage to the subject property, with similar square footages in the various units within the property, because larger average unit size usually generates higher rents and also results in a quicker lease-up.

Consider the type of purchaser involved in the comparable sale transactions. Private investors typically pay less for properties than institutional purchasers such as real estate investment trusts because REITs are able to obtain lower-cost loans.

Similarly, if below-market-rate financing was already in place and the buyer was able to assume the loan, then the sale price may have been artificially inflated. Another circumstance to examine is, if the seller provided a significant amount of financing in the sale, there may have been unusually favorable financing terms; if so, the sales price must be adjusted.

Another aspect to investigate is the existence or lack of substantial deferred maintenance at the time of sale in comparison to the subject property. The necessity for additional capital expenditures after a purchase can affect the purchase price.

It is helpful to inquire into the effective real estate tax rates of the sold properties in order to determine if they are sufficiently similar to the subject property. Jurisdictions or taxing districts with lower tax rates can cause properties to sell for higher prices. Taxing neighborhoods with higher tax rates tend to generate sales with lower values, and thus, higher cap rates.

All commercial real property owners in Fulton County should carefully examine their tax assessment notices, because higher valuations by county assessors may be on the horizon. Property owners do not want to pay sky-high taxes based on what may be reflexive assessments stemming from the latest headlines.

Lisa Stuckey and Brian Morrissey are partners in the Atlanta law firm of Ragsdale Beals Seigler Patterson & Gray LLP, the Georgia member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.
Continue reading
May
08

Don’t Forget Obsolescence in Property Tax Appeals

It's critical for owners to identify both economic and functional obsolescence in order to fight unfair tax assessments.

New technologies, shifting markets and aging buildings can drive economic obsolescence across entire industries. Equally important for the taxpayer, these factors also affect individual property values from a functionality perspective. Understanding both economic and functional obsolescence is essential to properly evaluate tax assessments for accuracy.

Determining functional obsolescence requires an analysis of the property's layout and technologies in use. This exercise attempts to quantify any adjustment in value that amplifies or outpaces downward trends occurring in the market, or accelerates depreciation beyond a straight-line basis. This may include external trends having a unique negative effect on the property's functionality.

Likewise, economic obsolescence can affect a property's value.Such an analysis involves external factors not necessarily specific to the property that may compromise its value on the open market.Declining trends in markets within an industry can signify reasons for impaired values both nationally and regionally.Moreover, international competition may underscore weaknesses within an industry that explain a reduction in a particular property's value.

In ascertaining the decline in a property's value due to economic obsolescence, the analysis must attempt to quantify that decline and offer reasons explaining it.These reasons need to be identified and reasonable, a rationale correlating values assigned to those reasons. For example, a facility may have a decline in excess of industry averages, such as changes in transportation costs and infrastructure in comparison to other supplying markets.It could become much less expensive to ship product from South America than to ship by rail in parts of the United States.

In an uncertain economic climate or a declining or stagnant real estate market, the need to evaluate obsolescence in property assessments is obvious. But even in times of growth and rising real estate prices, taxpayers should consider functionality in reviewing an assessment.

In Georgia, for example, regulations governing property assessments require local taxing authorities to take obsolescence into account. The statute lacks any description of the precise mechanics involved in measuring obsolescence, however, and assessors often forego such an evaluation.

A given jurisdiction's tax return may apply depreciation schedules, but those may not incorporate the concept of functionality. If unaddressed in depreciation schedules, then functional obsolescence needs to be captured as an adjunct to depreciation. Poor economic times or deterioration in a property's utility will exacerbate normal depreciation.

The degree of functional obsolescence is reflected in the utilization of the property. A comparison between full versus actual property usage can indicate the degree of functional obsolescence. Look for evidence of the gap between full and actual historical changes in operating income and production.

Functional vs. Economic Obsolescence

Given that the discrepancy between full and actual property utilization is unique to the facility and not industry-wide, it is functional. This could be explained by technological differences between competing facilities and the subject property. At the same time, external economic factors may contribute to the property's comparative decline.

For example, a printer may use antiquated equipment and technology that require it to keep large facilities for both production and warehousing. Comparisons will identify a gap in functionality between the property and those of more modern competitors using smaller facilities and newer technology. Faster production at newer printing operations may also require less warehousing, because projects are completed more quickly for shipping. The impact of this obsolescence on value is unique to the subject property, reflecting reduced functionality.

On the other hand, great changes are transforming the printing industry. These external factors may be detected in exactly the same way as functional change, but on an industry-wide basis.

Declining demand for an industry overall can impair a particular property's value. Such a sea change can exist within a robust economy, too: In our example, a digital culture has rejected the traditional model for printing to a significant degree, as the widespread use of electronic records and communication has reduced demand for paper printing.

A mine provides another example. Over time, miners extract the most accessible minerals using the least costly means. The layout and operation would have been originally set up to facilitate this process.

As mining continues, the remaining minerals may become more expensive to extract per unit of raw material. This added cost reduces operating income. The mine may require new infrastructure to continue operations. These periodic expansions may be inefficient, again increasing processing costs.

It may be true that, were the mine to be redesigned from scratch, no one would duplicate the existing operation because of the production costs. This reflects deteriorating functionality. On the other hand, industrial demand for the mined product may evaporate due to innovations that make the material unnecessary in processes that once required it.

Changing market forces can impact value. Until recently, the United States was a net importer of natural gas, supporting demand for facilities that enabled the import of liquid natural gas. Now that the United States is a net exporter of natural gas, those same facilities that handled the import of natural gas are more obsolete and less valuable.

Obsolescence is an important consideration in valuing property, regardless of economic conditions. This is especially true for functional obsolescence, but can also be true for economic obsolescence. In valuing property, it is important to remember there is significant overlap between the two, and many factors and influences may explain overall obsolescence.

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

American Property Tax Counsel

Recent Published Property Tax Articles

Does Your Property Tax Assessment Reflect COVID-19's Long-Term Challenges?

Here are a number of approaches to defending against excessive tax assessments.

Countless companies have seen their top and bottom lines decimated by COVID-related shutdowns, travel restrictions and changing consumer preferences since the start of the pandemic. Yet for many taxpayers, property tax values have changed little or even increased.

Many...

Read more

Property Tax Relief for the COVID Years

Strategies for getting value adjustments on assets impacted by the pandemic, from attorney Cynthia Fraser.

Last January I penned an article for this publication titled: "Will 2021 Bring Property-Tax Relief?" I never imagined we would enter a second phase of outbreaks and continued economic fallout related to COVID-19.

Because most states assess...

Read more

Understand the Impact of Intangibles

How to use these factors to reduce a senior living property's tax assessment.

The longstanding debate over intangible value in commercial real estate taxation rages unabated, and nowhere is the squabbling fiercer than in valuing seniors living facilities. Because these properties generally transact based on income from a going concern rather...

Read more

Member Spotlight

Members

Forgot your password? / Forgot your username?