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Property Tax Resources

Oct
19

Use Quality Data to Fight Unfair Tax Assessments

Owners appealing unfair tax assessments must aggressively and specifically examine the general economic climate.

"While area bankers express high hopes for the coming year, that optimism is not reflected in actual lending practices for the past year. According to the St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank, commercial and industrial loan volume in the United States totaled $16.4 billion in 2012, up slightly from $14 billion in 2011."

By accident or design, assessors tend to punish commercial property owners by increasing the assessed value of properties that outperform the market, thereby generating more taxes for the local government. The problem arises from real property valuations based upon a cash flow analysis, which fails to take into account intangible qualities that boost cash flow but are unconnected to intrinsic real estate value.

Intangible qualities that can increase a commercial property's cash flow include the skills of the management and general business reputation of the owners. Assessors have a tendency to value the business rather than the real property. Consequently, assessors punish owners for efficient and successful management. In order to guard against such an outcome, owners appealing unfair tax assessments must aggressively and specifically examine the general economic climate. In analyzing commercial property, appraisers dedicate pages within each appraisal report to the local economy. Time after time, appellate reviewers in their rush to focus on the cash flow of the specific property simply skip over the plethora of general economic data that fills appraisal reports.

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Two measures of local market performance are particularly important in appealing an assessment, however. One metric is retail sales, which provide a clear barometer of general economic conditions. Sales reflect the health of the consumer base and, most notably, employment. With diminished employment, sales fall in the marketplace. The other dataset to examine is the availability of credit for commercial property acquisition and/or development. While valuation authorities rarely acknowledge the relationship, retail sales and credit are inextricably linked.

Follow Sales Tax Receipts

A look at retail sales and availability of credit in the St. Louis marketplace provides a far better foundation for value analysis than do the population counts and various economic facts tacked onto assessors' reports.

In the city of St. Louis, total sales tax receipts increased every year from 2008 through 2012, with just a slight decline in 2010 (see chart). In 2013, however, the trend's trajectory has changed. The city of St. Louis has collected $30.7 million in sales tax receipts year-to-date through May, down 4.9 percent from $32.3 million during the same period a year ago.

Annual sales tax receipts for 2013 in St. Louis based were previously projected to reach just over $120 million based on the actual receipts for the first five months of 2013 and previous years' receipts during the last seven months of the year. However, the closing of a Macy's store in downtown St. Louis in May will dim this picture even further. Banks are feeling regulatory pressure to lower the concentration of commercial real estate loans in their portfolios. Lending to acquire or develop commercial buildings or residential subdivisions tanked during the Great Recession. Today, lenders give more scrutiny to a potential borrower's creditworthiness than before the downturn. The credit quality of borrowers or developers has in many respects become an important factor in the intrinsic value of the project or the real estate itself.

While area bankers express high hopes for the coming year, that optimism is not reflected in actual lending practices for the past year. According to the St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank, commercial and industrial loan volume in the United States totaled $16.4 billion in 2012, up slightly from $14 billion in 2011. Compared to the market's peak loan volume of $26 billion originated in 2008, credit availability in the sector is clearly constrained.

Focus On Fair Market Value

Property owners should keep in mind that the determination of fair market value is based upon not only a willing seller, but also a willing buyer. A willing buyer must obtain financing, and the St. Louis market has tightened up considerably in that regard. A tax appeal based on the scrutiny of credit availability and retail sales will go a long way toward ensuring that careful, prudent entrepreneurship and management will go unpunished by an excessive tax burden.

Wallach90 Jerome Wallach is a partner at The Wallach Law Firm, the Missouri member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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Oct
12

Supreme Court Rulings Help, Hurt Property Taxpayers

Two recent rulings by the California Supreme Court may have significant effects on the state's property taxpayers. These effects may be both good and bad, depending on your situation.

"The rule in question had watered down Proposition 13's cap on assessment increases by directly offsetting such increases against depreciation on machinery and equipment..."

The California Supreme Court issued two decisions in early August relating to property taxes that will significantly impact owners of commercial and industrial properties in Southern California.

Decision #1: Ruling Clarifies Tax Exemption for Intangibles

The first decision, Elk Hills Power vs. State Board of Equalization, broadly affirmed the exemption of intangible assets and rights from property taxation. County assessors had previously been assessing intangibles that businesses use in conjunction with real property as part of the real property's value. In other words, property owners were paying property tax on the value of the intangibles associated with operating businesses at a property, as well as on the value of the real estate.

The Elk Hills Power decision changes that by prohibiting assessors from including intangibles in the taxable value of the real property. Moreover, if a taxpayer identifies an intangible to the county assessor and shows the value of the intangible, the assessor must review it. So what are the intangibles that are exempted from taxation? The Supreme Court's decision lists several, including franchises, contracts, assembled workforce, customer base and goodwill.

That list is not comprehensive, however, and nearly all intangibles used in the operation of a business are arguably included. So how should property owners respond to the Supreme Court's taxpayer-friendly decision? First, identify the intangibles used in operating any business at the property and, if possible, attempt to value those intangibles.

Next, report the identified intangibles with associated values to the county assessor. This is especially important if the real property was recently acquired, which allows local assessors to establish new Proposition 13 base year values. If discussions with the assessor fail to result in exclusion and exemption of intangible values from the property tax assessment, the property owner should file and pursue an appeal before the county assessment appeals board.

Decision #2: Court Weakens Proposition 13's Cap on Tax Increases

The Supreme Court's second decision, Western States Petroleum Association vs. State Board of Equalization, involved the legality of a new rule issued by the State Board of Equalization for the taxation of petroleum refineries. The question before the court concerned a rule affecting Proposition 13, a law that essentially limits increases on the assessed value of land to no more than 2 percent annually.

The rule in question had watered down Proposition 13's cap on assessment increases by directly offsetting such increases against depreciation on machinery and equipment. For fixtureintensive properties like refineries, food processing facilities and power plants, the impact can be significant The Court struck down the rule, finding the Board had issued an inadequate economic impact report, and thereby failed to adhere to the requirements of the Administrative Procedures Act. In the same decision, however, the Court also ruled that the Board's reasons for adopting the rule were sound.

In fact, in a concurring opinion, one of the Court's justices essentially invited the Board to reissue the rule as long as it followed the procedures for doing so. It appears that the Board may be preparing to do just that. But this time the rule may be much broader in scope, sweeping in all types of properties that are operated with large amounts of machinery and equipment, which assessors refer to as "fixtures."

If the Board issues a more broad-ranging rule, commercial and industrial properties that use large amounts of fixtures will experience noticeable increases in property taxes. In essence, the Supreme Court's decision in Western States mounts to another attack on Proposition 13, much like the "split-roll" attacks that have sought to apply a tax rate to commercial properties that is different from the rate applied to residential properties. While it is possible that the Board will decline to revisit the matter, the current political and economic situation in California suggests it will enact another rule.

CONeallCris K. O'Neall, partner, Cahill, Davis & O'Neall LLP in Los Angeles. The law firm is the California member of American Property Tax Counsel. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

 

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Sep
30

Charlotte Caught In A Web

Inequities in assessments spark tax controversy in North Carolina's banking hub.

Charlotte, the largest city in North Carolina, is the second largest banking center in the United States. Like the larger New York financial cluster, Charlotte suffered grievous job losses and deflation of property values during the Great Recession. As the seat of Mecklenburg County, Charlotte is also at the center of a tax reform effort marked by record numbers of taxpayer protests, the resignation of the tax assessor and an ongoing attempt by state lawmakers to correct local valuation inequities.

Essentially, the lengthy intervals up to eight years — that North Carolina law allows between revaluations, combined with the effects of deteriorating property values since the onset of the recession, set the stage for a valuation imbroglio for property owners in Charlotte and Mecklenburg County.

Prior to its 2011 revaluation, Mecklenburg had last revalued in 2003. The county planned at that time to revalue in 2007. During the course of the last cycle, however, county commissioners decided to postpone the revaluation until 2009. After the banking crisis and resulting real estate market crash of 2008, when real estate sales largely ceased, commissioners postponed the revaluation to 2010, and then postponed it again until 2011, the eighth year in the cycle, when by law the revaluation had to occur. Presumably, political leaders intended the postponements to allow the real estate market an opportunity to stabilize, and perhaps recover.

Those good intentions and the resulting series of postponements proved to be major contributors to what must be regarded as a blown revaluation, despite the best efforts of what has egnerally been regarded as a highly competent assessor and staff.

The assessments produced significant overvaluations of many properties and sparked mass protests from homeowners in sections of the county and a heated debate punctuated by the county assessor's resignation. Taxpayers had filed 1,542 appeals to the North Carolina Property Tax Commission from the Mecklenburg County Board of Equalization and Review as of mid-April this year, the largest number by far from any revaluation in North Carolina's history.

Pearson's Appraisal Service, an outside consultant the county hired to study the revaluation, reviewed a random sample of the revaluation results and discovered major issues. Although much of the revaluation met acceptable assessment standards, the consultant identified inconsistencies involving both uniformity of assessment and valuation in residential neighborhoods which were heterogeneous with in-fill and tear-down activity and in neighborhoods where the current use might not be the highest and best use.

Problems also emerged in connection with commercial properties, including certain office, retail and hotel categories. Substantial problems turned up involving land valuations in addition to many other issues that the consultant characterized
as minor.

Although the county commissioners voted to expand the consultant's study, they were constrained by a state law that prohibits retroactive valuation adjustments and taxpayer refunds for years when assessments had not previously been appealed. Amid continuing and widespread voter dissatisfaction, legislators, with the support of the county commission, introduced unprecedented legislation on March 4, 2013, to correct the 2011 revaluation.

North Carolina's constitution prohibits classifications of property for taxation except on a statewide basis, and provides that "every classification shall be made by general law uniformly applicable in every county, city and town, and other unit of local government." Another section of the constitution prohibits local legislation extending the time for the levy or collection of taxes.

Attempting to draft constitutional legislation that would address Mecklenburg County's unique revaluation needs, lawmakers worded Senate Bill 159 and its House counterpart, HB 200, to be ostensibly applicable statewide, but with preconditions to application of the statute that only Mecklenburg County is likely to meet.

The North Carolina Senate passed SB 159 unanimously on March 28, and after amendment in the House, the bill was returned to the Senate, which concurred in the House amendments on July 18. SB 159 provides that the county must conduct a general reappraisal within 18 months if the following is found to exist:

  • The county has evidence that the majority of commercial neighborhoods possess significant issues of inequity
  • Instances of inequity or erroneous data had a significant impact on the valuation of residential neighborhoods,
  • The county's last general reappraisal was performed in 20082012 when the economic downturn most severely affected home prices,
  • The county's evidence resulted from a review by an appraisal service retained by the county and resulted from a sample size of not less than 375 properties that were examined on site.
  • The reappraisal is to be applicable to all tax years from and including the year of last revaluation,
  • Alternatively, a county meeting the criteria must have a qualified appraisal service conduct a total review of all the values in the county and make recommendations as to true values of the
  • properties as of Jan. 1 of the last general revaluation.

Once in possession of this information, the county would be required under SB 159 to correct incorrect assessments to reflect true value as of Jan. 1, 2011, and apply those corrected values for later years in the revaluation cycle. Refunds would be automatically made, with interest, and under-assessments based on the new values would be subject to discovery assessments under existing tax statutes, but without being subject to normal discovery penalties.

Based on the legislative action, it appears that the Mecklenburg revaluation will drag on for some time. Since the county will be reviewing values, the legislation appears to open the door for taxpayers to identify assessments they think unfair and draw them to the attention of the county for review. And as the legislative note accompanying the bill provides, "a taxpayer or county may have standing to challenge" the legislation and "it is unknown whether a court would find the bill to be local in nature or non-uniform."

In other words, lawmakers recognize the potential for a court to rule the legislation as unconstitutional.

Neely Chuck Neely, Jr. is a partner in the law firm of Williams & Mullen, the North Carolina member of American Property Tax Counsel (APTC), the national affiliation of property tax attorneys. Mr. Neely can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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Sep
22

Texas Property Tax Change Explained

Property owners to benefit from adjustments in appraisal review boards, appeals and hearings.

"Texas House Bill 585, which passed in June of this year, was written to provide for a fairer and more efficient tax appeal process, and its passage into law may help taxpayers appeal their assessments..."

As the economy recovers and property values rise, real estate taxes are a growing concern for Texas property owners. Each dollar of additional tax is a dollar removed from an income-producing property's bottom line, and some taxpayers will find that the increases in tax appraisals are overreaching and require a formal protest. That being said, taxpayers who protest their property values will likely be pleased with the Texas Legislature's recent revision to the property tax code. Texas House Bill 585, which passed in June of this year, was written to provide for a fairer and more efficient tax appeal process, and its passage into law may help taxpayers appeal their assessments.

Complaints about the state's property tax system often involve a perception of bias on the part of appraisal review boards (ARBs), the citizen panels that hear and decide property tax appeals at the administrative level. A second concern is a perceived lack of responsiveness on the part of appraisal districts with regard to taxpayer concerns. To address this, HB 585 provides for increased oversight of these entities. The new law requires the comptroller to provide model hearing procedures with clear expectations for all Texas ARBs.

In large counties, it also establishes a taxpayer complaint system through a taxpayer Liaison, an intermediary housed at the district and tasked with hearing taxpayer concerns regarding procedures and personnel. The liaison's go-between responsibilities will now increase to include accepting taxpayer complaints and providing clerical support in the ARB selection process.

On top of re-emphasizing oversight and improving accountability, HB 585 tackles another perceived flaw in the property tax appeal system. Appraisal district boards of directors have historically selected ARB members. In Houston, however, a district judge selects Harris County ARB members. ARB member selection in counties with more than 120,000 residents will now take on this same model used in Harris County. Only district judges will possess the power to appoint members.
It's a move that could also have disciplinary implications, as ARB members who do not follow procedures may be removed by a judge as well. And in large counties, the appraisal district will be removed from the panel selection process completely. Aside from the new panel requirements, the new law seeks to make protesting property values easier and more effective. Appeal hearings must now be set for a certain date and time.

If a hearing does not occur within two hours of its scheduled time, a taxpayer may request a postponement. Also, if before a scheduled hearing
a change in value is made with an informal agreement between taxpayers and appraisers, the law strengthens the standards of evidence appraisal districts must provide in order to raise the property value the next year. This could mean less volatility for values. These changes are not the only changes set forth by HB 585, as the new law also provides new procedures for district court appeals. While shifts in accountability and scheduling may seem small, they could indicate a broader trend toward a more fair and equitable Texas property tax system.

As more guidelines favor taxpayers, it improves their likelihood of achieving fair results. What's more, keeping tax values fair will ensure that Texas' ability to attract developers and investors remains strong.


Shalley Michael Shalley is a principal and Patrick McGill a tax consultant at the Austin law firm of Popp Hutcheson PLLC. which focuses its practice on property tax disputes and is the Texas member of the American Property Tax Counsel. Michael Shalley can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. an Patrick McGill can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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Aug
22

Annual Tax Hikes, Layoffs Threaten Chicago's Future

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

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

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

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

Shrinking values, expanding budgets

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

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

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

A study in schools

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JR90James P. Regan is President of Chicago law firm Fisk Kart Katz and Regan Ltd., the Illinois member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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Aug
04

Know The Process

Keep the belt tightened to combat rising property taxes.

"Property values will likely increase over the next few years, so it is as important as ever for property owners to ensure that their property is fairly assessed."

In Alabama, as in much of the country, many property owners tightened their belts during the Great Recession, looking for ways to reduce operating costs for tenants and themselves. For some owners, a little bit of property tax relief provided a silver lining to the loud of plummeting property values that followed the crash Ben Bernanke and other economists assure us that better times lie ahead, however, property owners should remain vigilant in monitoring properties for over-assessment as the recovery plays out.

First and foremost, taxpayers should familiarize themselves with the general property tax laws and procedures in each market in which they own or in tend to own real estate. Though generally created and governed by state law, the property tax appeal process is often speckled with local nuances and specialized interpretations of law.

Learn key dates, including the valuation date, when assessors distribute notices, and the appeal deadline. How do assessors determine market value? Must an owner pay the full tax bill to preserve the right to appeal? Does the property qualify for any tax exemptions or alternative valuation methods? Local counsel can be an efficient and effective way to monitor these and other property tax considerations.

Perhaps in response to a growing number of tax protests, tax assessment officials are increasingly adding procedures and requirements concerning valuation disputes. These local rules range from requiring specific methods of filing protests - whether on a certain form or by mail, fax or email- to establishing early deadlines for submitting a property's financial statements for consideration of the income approach to valuation. Although the legality of some of these additional requirements is unclear, it is important for the property owner to observe these rules to avoid unnecessary appeals and litigation.

Knowing the correct deadlines is essential, and is more challenging than it may seem. For example, Alabama taxpayers have 30 days after the valuation notice date to file a protest. Each of Alabama's 67 counties sends out valuation notices on its own schedule, typically between April and midsummer. Georgia's 159 counties have similarly staggered notice periods and deadlines. To further complicate things, Alabama does not require valuation notices if the property value is unchanged from the previous year. Nonetheless, the taxpayer has only 30 days from the notice date to file a protest.

As in many other states, Alabama assessors send tax notices to the property's owner of record. This means that tenants - which often pay the taxes and have protest rights under their leases - generally do not receive notices from the assessor. In such cases, the tenant needs to remind the owner to forward valuation notices as soon as they are received, and should independently confirm the notice dates and values with the taxing jurisdiction. In an expanding economy, the valuation date can significantly affect the property's assessed value. For example, Alabama assessments in any given year reflect the property's value as of Oct. 1 of the previous year, so 2013 taxes are determined by the value as of Oct. 1; 2012. Accordingly, an increase in market values in the first quarter of 2013 should have no bearing on the value used to determine 2013 taxes. When reviewing an assessment for accuracy, a taxpayer should consider all factors affecting the property's value. Taxpayers are often focused on the big picture in ad valorem tax disputes such as the net operating income, rent roll, occupancy, capitalization rates and the like.

There is more to be mined in less obvious areas, however. Is the property subject to any title restrictions, such as use limitations or conservation easements? Are there any environmental impairments? Is the property specialized for the particular use of one owner, thereby limiting its market value to potential buyers? Is the property's value affected by "super adequacy," which occurs when the cost and quality of improvements exceed market requirements but fail to contribute to the property's value? An example of the latter would be a government building with security features well in excess of those a private business would require - or pay for. Property values will likely increase over the next few years, so it is as important as ever for property owners to ensure that their property is fairly assessed.

adv headshot resize Aaron D. Vansant is a partner in the law firm of DonovanFingar LLC. the Alabama 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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Aug
04

Recovering Seattle Market Generates Property Tax Fallout

"Multifamily housing in King County may be particularly susceptible to inflated assessments in the upcoming years."

Each week seems to bring news of yet another record-selling price for a commercial property in Seattle, including assets ranging from office and retail to apartments and even development sites. Increasing occupancy rates for industrial and retail properties also suggest that property values are headed up.

The King County assessor has undoubtedly tracked these price trends, too. In 2012, the assessor's office reported overall increases in taxable values for major office buildings, major retail properties, hotels and apartments. As a result, many commercial property owners in the Puget Sound region saw increases on their 2012 assessed value notices. In March, King County's chief economist projected that total assessed values in the county would reach nearly $327 billion in 2013 (for taxes payable in 2014), up nearly 4 percent from $315 billion in 2012.

For many taxpayers, notices in 2013 will reflect assessment increases even greater than 4 percent. The general recovery in the Seattle market should not trigger increased assessments for all properties. For example, some suburban areas have missed out on the trend toward increasing property values. And there are always individual properties that do not experience the same increases as their neighbors. Accordingly, owners should be attentive to potentially overstated assessed values.

Multifamily housing in King County may be particularly susceptible to inflated assessments in the upcoming years. One reason is the high prices paid in recent transactions. Another is the ongoing development of many new apartment projects. Even as that construction fervor gives assessors the idea that apartments are hot commodities, these new projects increase the risk of value-sapping oversupply in some submarkets.

Assessed values for Single-family residences make up roughly two thirds of the tax base in Seattle. With that said, home prices have risen 10.6 percent in the past 12 months, according to the Standard & Poor's/Case-Shiller Home-Price Index that was released in late May. As many homeowners receive higher assessments in 2013, that should provide at least some measure of relief for commercial taxpayers.

Prepare For Tax Increases

Budgeting for an upcoming year's property tax bill is always a challenge, in part because tax rates can vary significantly by year and location. Seattle's tax rates decreased each year from 2004 through 2008, then rose a whopping 13 percent in 2009. They have continued to climb each year since. A further, small increase in 2014 tax rates is likely. Within King County, tax rates can vary widely even within a single year. While Bellevue has a tax rate of less than 1 percent for 2013, suburbs in South King County employ tax rates that are half-again higher: Kent, Des Moines and Federal Way rates range from 1.45 percent to 1.6 percent. In order to guard against an in- Dated tax bill professionals must ensure that assessed value notices get routed to a responsible person. If an assessment seems too high, then the appeal petition must be filed within 60 days of the notice's mailing date to preserve the owner's appeal rights.

Most commercial property owners should budget for increased tax liability for 2014 taxes, given the prospect of generally rising assessed values in 2013 and the likelihood of higher tax rates in 2014. Property owners should receive notification of new assessed values by this fall. Then in late January, when counties publish final tax rates, property owners can calculate their tax burden and revise budgets accordingly.

MDeLappe Bruns Michelle DeLappe and Norman J. Bruns are attorneys at Garvey Schubert Barer, Washington and Idaho member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys. Michelle DeLappe can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. and Norman Bruns can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..
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Aug
03

Is Your Brownfield Being Fairly Assessed?

"While the case law and appraisal science continue to evolve, the framework for valuing properties subject to environmental contamination remains relatively unchanged..."

The legal and appraisal communities have embraced the notion that environmental contamination can impair real estate value. After all, a property's potential uses or limitations on those uses have a direct bearing on the asset's marketability and profit potential.

An investor seeking to rein-in the tax burden on a contaminated property must navigate a legislative and regulatory framework that imposes liability on the property owner for environmental cleanup costs and remediation. In addition to the value lost when a property is directly contaminated, properties in proximity to the contaminated site can also lose value because they are subject to contamination.The devil is in the details, however, and uantifying the direct or proximate impact on value can prove problematic.

The State of New Jersey is a leader in attempting to define the impact of contamination on property value, and its highest court discussed this perplexing problem in the 1980s case of Inmar Associates Inc. vs. Carlstadt.

The New Jersey Supreme Court recognized that the costs associated with cleaning up environmentally contaminated properties would have a depreciating effect upon the properties' true value. The court also noted that deducting those costs dollar-for-dollar from the true value of the property is an unacceptable methodology, and deferred to the appraisal community to arrive at an appropriate valuation method.

Years later, in the case of Metuchen vs. Borough of Metuchen, the court identified a procedure it found acceptable. Without question, uncontaminated land is worth more than contaminated land, the court reasoned. Therefore, as contaminated land is cleaned up, its value increases. The legal question is, how should this capitalization of the cleanup costs affect the market value of the subject property?

In Metuchen, the tax court used the principles established in Inmar to form a foundation or core principles for assessing the value of unused, contaminated property that is subject to mandatory cleanup at the owner's expense, at an estimated but undetermined cost. Those are: cleanup cost, the effect on market value, calculating the impact and treating the cost of cleanup as a depreciable capital improvement.

Taking the lead from the New Jersey Supreme Court's ruling in Inmar, the tax court in Metuchen deferred to the appraisers to determine the costs of cleanup and appropriate capitalization time period. The parties essentially agreed upon the unimpaired value of the property and the court easily reconciled the difference in opinion on cleanup costs.

While the case law and appraisal science continue to evolve, the framework for valuing properties subject to environmental contamination remains relatively unchanged since Metuchen. That formula entails discounting the present value of cleanup costs and subtracting that from the property's clean value.
Most recently, the tax court used the Metuchen formula to find value in an unreported decision.

While courts, property owners and assessors use the Metuchen formula to determine the value of contaminated land, this method fails to deal with other factors associated with contaminated sites. One of those factors is environmental stigma, a term the appraisal community uses in attempting to quantify the adverse effect on property value produced by the market's perception of increased risk. Even after environmental cleanup and remediation, environmental stigma may still lower the otherwise unimpaired property's value.

pgiannuarioPhilip J. Giannuario is a partner in the Montclair, NJ law firm Garippa, Lotz & Giannuario, the New Jersey and Eastern Pennsylvania member of American Property Tax Counsel. He may be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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Jul
16

Some Justice for Taxpayers

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

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

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

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

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

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

Winning the Case

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MANDELL Stewart

Stewart L. Mandell is a partner in the law firm of Honigman Miller Schwartz and Cohn L.L.P., the Michigan member of the American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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Jul
12

A Taxing Situation in Cleveland

Owners at risk of unfairly high assessments pending Ohio Supreme Court guidance

"Recent history shows that districts are using sale prices to impose unreasonable tax burdens on taxpayers..."

Like much of the nation, Cleveland is experiencing sluggish but discernible improvements in its real estate market, and buyers are beginning to purchase real estate at prices that exceed the property's tax assessment value. The resulting real estate price volatility puts many Ohio property owners — and recent buyers in particular — at greater risk of receiving an unexpected and potentially unfair increase in their property tax bill. When property values are fragile, unexpected increases in expenses can be disastrous, and that includes an unexpected rise in real estate taxes. Ohio is one of the few states where school districts and other taxing entities have the legal authority to protest the assessed values of properties in their districts and to seek increases in taxable value. In fact it is customary for school districts in Ohio to seek an increased valuation and consequent rise in taxes on properties that have recently sold.

While the practice is customary, it is neither predictable nor uniform. The assessment on a property that recently sold can be significantly higher than the assessments on neighboring properties based on its sale price. Moreover, different taxing districts have different policies as to the extent and manner in which they pursue this remedy. For instance, some taxing districts may not aggressively chase sales. Others may seek not only to raise future assessments, but also to retroactively increase the assessment for the past year.

Taxing Sales

In many cases, a recent sale of real property is the best indication of its value, but there are exceptions. Modern real estate transactions frequently include the simultaneous transfer of non-real estate items, or the amount of consideration paid may reflect factors other than the fair market value of the real property. If these non-real estate items are not specifically identified and distinguished from the real estate value, they can be included in the value assigned to the property for files an increase complaint.

Recent history shows that with increasing frequency districts are using sale prices to impose unreasonable tax burdens on taxpayers. In an effort to correct this trend, on June 11, 2012, the state of Ohio enacted a statute that clearly states that real estate assessments must be based on fee simple estate, as if unencumbered. Moreover, the new statute further provides that where there is a recent arm's length sale, the auditor may consider the sale to be true value.

Read together, in order for the assessor to consider the sale price to be true value, that sale would have to reflect the fee simple estate, as if unencumbered. To understand why and how that is so important, it is useful to look back over developments in Ohio law over the past decade.

The Changing Law

Ohio law always provided that assessments shall be made based on true value and that "the auditor shall consider the sale price of such tract, lot, or parcel ... to be the true value for taxation." In 2005, the Ohio Supreme Court interpreted that statutory language to mean that there is no further evidence necessary to prove true value. Later, the Supreme Court expanded the ruling by stating that leased fee sales were also acceptable. (Leased fee value is based on a landlord's expected rental income from a leased property.) Even worse, later cases expanded the law to include leased fee transactions as comparable sales even when appraising fee simple, owner-occupied properties. And finally, other cases set precedents that precluded the county auditor, the state Board of Tax Appeals, or Common Pleas Courts from taking into consideration circumstances which indicated that the sale was not representative of market value. Despite the state's recent efforts to stop counties and school boards (which can file suits) from preying on investors buying property in Ohio, the trend has continued.

KJenningsGraph2013

Real estate buyers in Cleveland must be even more careful to take appropriate steps to ensure fair treatment. As recently as March 2013, an assessor used the sale price of the ongoing business of a 127-bed nursing home, which was part of a sale that included 72 other nursing home operations in a multi-state transaction, to determine its assessed value. The sale price of the nursing home was $10.6 million, and the assessor valued the property at that price. The taxpayer's appraisal valued only the real estate, which came to $3.5 million (see chart). In short, the county is now taxing the value of the personal property and business operation at the nursing home when it only has authority to tax the real estate.

State lawmakers have attempted to make the law more uniform and equal by establishing a standard of fee simple, as if unencumbered, while providing flexibility to use a sale where it is warranted. What is still needed is guidance from the Supreme Court to enforce that standard.
Until the court has an appropriate case to provide that needed guidance, investors need to structure transactions with taxation in mind. To be recently purchased must be treated like those that have not been sold. Unfortunately, the burden falls on the parties in the transaction to make sure that all documents involved in the sale, particularly those that are recorded publicly, reflect only the real estate value.

Countermeasures Emerge

As an alternative, many investors have taken to purchasing the entity that owns the property rather than the real estate. Purchasing the entity eliminates the need to record a new deed, which is often the triggering event for school districts to file complaints seeking additional property taxes. As a result, the county may unknowingly be forced to treat all taxpayers alike. Moreover, state law prevents the schools from using the purchase of an entity to treat new buyers differently than existing owners. In 2000 and in 1998, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled that the sale price of all the shares of a company's stock does not establish the value of the company's real property. This is true even where the only asset of the company is its real estate. By purchasing an entity rather than the bare real estate, a taxpayer has at least a fighting chance to have equal treatment under the law. Given the complexities of such a transaction, however, buyers should seek local counsel when using this acquisition strategy.


kjennings Kieran Jennings is a partner in the law firm of Siegel Jennings Co., L.P.A., the Ohio and Western Pennsylvania member of American Property Tax Counsel. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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