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Property Tax Resources

Oct
08

Caught in 'The Twilight Zone'

"Property owners haunted by flawed approach to tax assessments..."

By Stewart L. Mandell, Esq., as published by National Real Estate Investor, October 2010

Flawed cost-based assessments are a common cause of unlawfully high property taxation. Year after year, inflated valuations by government assessors can impose excessive tax bills on a property, notwithstanding annual taxpayer efforts to correct them.

For property owners, persistently unfair assessments are like Talky Tina, the infamous talking doll in the television series The Twilight Zone. The evil toy ultimately prevails against homeowner Erich Streator, notwithstanding his repeated efforts to remove the doll from the Streator family home. The bad news for taxpayers is that assessors will continue to impose excessive, flawed assessments because they often employ error-prone appraisal methods in the interest of expediency. The following demonstrates a common route to a cost-based assessment.

Software can help assessors quickly calculate the cost of reproducing property improvements, an amount I'll call "cost to build today." To account for physical deterioration of improvements, assessors can use an age-life method.

Twilight_Zone_graph2

For example, let's say a five-year old structure's estimated life is 50 years and its cost to build today is $10 million. The assessor deducts 10% for physical deterioration and adds the resulting $9 million value to the land value for a quick — and often inflated — assessment. The good news for taxpayers is that, unlike the Twilight Zone's Streator family, they have the means to seek and obtain justice.

A compelling case

A recently litigated tax appeal regarding a big-box retail building offers a persuasive example. The taxpayer-submitted appraisal included not only income- and sales-comparison based valuations, but also a proper cost approach.

The cost-based analysis differed in several ways from the tax assessor's hasty valuation. First, the appraisal explained that in addition to physical deterioration, depreciation must reflect functional obsolescence or drawbacks to the property itself, as well as external obsolescence. The latter refers to factors outside the property, such as reduced demand for space due to a recession.

The taxpayer proved that the original assessment was flawed because only physical deterioration had been subtracted from the cost to build today. Additionally, the property owner's appraiser presented comparable sales of other big-box locations where a taxpayer had purchased a site, developed a building and sold the property within a few years. These comparable sales were properties in which the owners had a fee simple interest.

For each comparable sale, the appraiser established the total depreciation of the improvements by first subtracting the original land purchase amount from the recent sale price to arrive at a current depreciated value for the building. Then the appraiser compared that building value to the cost to build today, which showed how much the building had depreciated over time.

The total depreciation at these similar properties supported the case for a lower assessment. In the most extreme example from several comparable sales, the value of the building and improvements was 56% less than the cost to build today. Total depreciation of the improvements in the comparable examples ranged from 42% to 56%. Applying this analysis, even after adding back the property's $700,000 land cost, the property assessment should have been about $3 million instead of more than $5 million.

In this case, the appraiser had comparable sales data on similar properties where land acquisition, construction and a sale had taken place in a relatively short time. In cases where the available comparable sales are of older properties, land sales may be used to establish the land value, rather than using the actual original price. As the accompanying chart shows, the taxpayer demonstrated that the government's assessment was unlawfully inflated by over 40%. Clearly, comparable sales can help taxpayers fight the kind of excessive taxation that should only exist in the fictitious world of The Twilight Zone.

MandellPhoto90Stewart L. Mandell is a partner in the law firm of Honigman Miller Schwartz and Cohn LLP, the Michigan member of American Property Tax Counsel (APTC). He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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Sep
23

The Tax Credit Conundrum

States moving to address proper valuations of LIHTC projects

"The cost approach calculates the expense of replacing a building with a similar one. That doesn't work in this context because without the tax credit subsidy, LIHTC projects could not be built in the first place..."

By Michael Martone, Esq., and Michael P. Guerriero, Esq., Affordable Housing Finance, September 2010.

An unfair property valuation by a local tax assessor can cripple the operation of a low-income housing tax credit (LIHTC) operation. Unfortunately, the inconsistency and uncertainty of how assessors value completed developments is a common impediment to financing LIHTC projects.

Without guidance at the state level, local assessors may value projects without consideration of the regulations that encumber the property and limit its income producing potential. Tax assessments based upon the highest use, rather than the actual use, of the property can even prevent development altogether.

The majority of states base their property tax valuations on fair market value. Typically, assessors value real estate by one of three methods—the market approach, the cost approach, or the income approach—and each presents challenges in relation to LIHTC assets.

The market approach of analyzing comparable sales is difficult to apply because there exists no market of tax credit property transactions to rely upon.

The cost approach calculates the expense of replacing a building with a similar one. That doesn't work in this context because without the tax credit subsidy, LIHTC projects could not be built in the first place.

The income approach is generally favored when valuing income-producing property, such as an apartment building that generates a cash stream of paid rent. However, conflict exists over whether to value the property based upon estimated market rents or the actual restricted rents that are inherent in an LIHTC operation.

For example, in New York, just as in many states, there existed no clear statutory guidance or case law to provide a uniform method of assessment for affordable housing. Many times assessors took the position that these properties should be assessed on an income basis as though they operated at market rents. The result was inflated property tax bills based on market rents that LIHTC projects cannot charge due to rent restrictions.

State legislation has slowly matured in this area. In 2005, New York became the 14th state to address the proper valuation of LIHTC properties. Other states that have passed legislation adopting a uniform method of assessment include Alaska, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Maryland, Nebraska, Pennsylvania, Utah, and Wisconsin.

New York's Real Property Tax Law directs local assessors to use an income approach that excludes tax credits or subsidies as income when valuing LIHTC properties.

To qualify, a property must be subject to a regulatory agreement with the municipality, the state, or the federal government that limits occupancy of at least 20 percent of the units to an "income test." The law requires the income approach of valuation be applied only to the "actual net operating income" after deduction of any reserves required by federal programs.

The New York statute is representative of other states, such as California, Illinois, Iowa, Maryland, and Nebraska.

Maryland's tax code states that tax credits may not be included as income attributable to the property and that the rent restrictions must be considered in the property valuation.

Likewise, California mandates that "the assessor shall exclude from income the benefit from federal and state low-income tax credits" when valuing property under the income approach.

However, there are still many states without legislation, leaving the valuation of these projects to the whims of a local assessor who may not understand the intricacies of an LIHTC project.

MMartone_ColorMichael Martone is the managing partner of law firm Koeppel Martone & Leistman LLP in Mineola, N.Y. Michael Guerriero is an associate at the firm, the New York member of American Property Tax Counsel (APTC), the national affiliation of property tax attorneys. Michael Martone can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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Sep
23

Golf Course Owners Teed Off Over Taxes

"Taxpayers are left to rely on the courts to compel assessors to value golf courses by present use and condition only..."

By Michael Martone, Esq., and Michael P. Guerriero, Esq., National Real Estate Investor, September 2010

A battle is raging in New York and across the country between assessors and taxpayers at odds over the market value of golf courses and their associated membership clubs.

The front lines in this conflict are clearly demonstrated in Nassau County, N.Y., home to 400 overlapping tax districts and a population suffering the highest taxation burden in the state. The recession and nationwide decline in property values for golf courses have pushed many clubs into severe financial straits as thinning rosters force them to lower dues or scrap fees.

Golf_Courses_graph2One prominent Long Island club recently sold to a developer. Another declared bankruptcy, and surviving golf courses are fighting to avoid similar fates. Closures outpace new openings as demand for golf declines and revenue growth remains flat in the face of rising costs especially property taxes.

Exacerbating the tax problem are assessors who turn a blind eye to the economic forces threatening the survival of private clubs, and who instead pay undue attention to alternative land uses. Taxpayers are left to rely on the courts to compel assessors to value golf courses by present use and condition only.

In most all cases a golf course sells for a price that includes its business operation and personal property, but only the value of the real estate may be considered in setting the property tax assessment.

Development factor

Many courses are bought and sold for their development potential, grossly inflating values. Where developable land is at a premium, reliance on comparable sales could tax private golf courses from existence. The cost approach, too, is generally reserved for specialty property.

For these reasons, courts require the assessor to value the private golf course based on its value in use when employing the income capitalization approach. With this approach, a not-for-profit private club is valued as if it were a privately operated, for-profit, daily fee operation.

The courts tend to determine a golf course's income stream by capitalizing the amount a golf operator would pay a property owner as rent for the course. They use this methodology because golf course operators typically pay a percentage of gross revenues as rent. That amount can be capitalized to arrive at a value. The capitalization of golf rent to value is a hotly litigated issue and influences the percentage rent to be used.

 

Conflicting formula

Rents for golf course leases are influenced by differences in tax burdens from one location to the next. Similar golf courses operating under a similar operating basis, yet in differing locations with disparate tax burdens, must be equalized to arrive at a fair and uniform tax value. In a recent case, the court sought how best to keep the influence of high tax burdens from unfairly distorting value.

In that case, the assessor preached the application of an ad-hoc, subjective adjustment to the percentage rent to reflect a greater or lesser tax burden. This approach assumes the rental amounts would be triple-net. In a triple-net lease the tenant pays the real estate taxes, and the percentage rent is adjusted to reflect local taxes on a case-by-case basis.

The taxpayer offered another, more reliable method, the "assessor's formula". This formula lets the assessor follow the law, which calls for like-kind properties to be equally and uniformly assessed. The formula takes into account the income stream, the cap rate and the tax rate.

For example, consider two identical properties a city block apart, but in separate tax districts. One district has high tax rates, and the other a low tax rate. Because the assessor's formula weighs all three elements used to arrive at market value, it produces fair tax assessments as opposed to a subjective adjustment that is not computed on a scientific basis.

The accompanying chart shows the difference in assessments when the assessor's formula is used instead of an ad hoc, subjective tax adjustment. The assessor's formula provides a superior method that both assessor and taxpayer can rely on.

MMartone_ColorMichael Martone is the managing partner of law firm Koeppel Martone & Leistman LLP in Mineola, N.Y. Michael Guerriero is an associate at the firm, the New York member of American Property Tax Counsel (APTC), the national affiliation of property tax attorneys. They can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. and This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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Sep
16

Paid Rent - Not Lease Rates - Reveal Taxable Value

" Few U.S. markets are stable these days, however. In today's economic tumult, a property's leased fee position—its value based on contract lease rates—may not reflect current, dire market conditions that can bring down its taxable value..."

By Mark Maher, Esq., as published by Commercial Property Executive, September 2010

Many states assess commercial property on a fee-simple basis, using market rents and vacancy rates to calculate a property's potential income and value. That may work in a stable market, where multi-tenant properties have rent rolls that continually turn over and are consistent with market rents.

Few U.S. markets are stable these days, however. In today's economic tumult, a property's leased fee position—its value based on contract lease rates—may not reflect current, dire market conditions that can bring down its taxable value. It's more important than ever to educate the assessor to the realities of leasing in 2010.

In many cases, the data in the rent roll don't convey the full story of a property's performance. Tenants may be missing payments or be late in meeting their obligations. Some spaces might be rented but physically vacant as companies close sites and consolidate operations. This "shadow space" that is leased but unoccupied reduces the appeal of the rest of the property to potential new users. Worse yet, shadow space is often available for sublease and directly competes with the landlord for tenants, usually at attractively low rates.

Another common source of overvaluation by assessors is published asking rental rates, which many jurisdictions equate to market rates. Such information is easily available and busy assessors often revert to it as a starting point for valuing properties.

The property owner's leasing team is the best source of information to establish the new, lower market rents that will produce an assessment in line with true value. The taxpayer can build a case by providing examples of tenants signing leases for low rent, but that task may prove challenging because few tenants are currently taking new space.

As an alternative, property owners can marshal anecdotes of failed leasing efforts in order to counter asking-rent data. Lost and dead leasing deals need to be detailed so that assessors can place themselves in the property owner's shoes.

Remember that few assessors have experienced a precipitous downturn before. It's in the taxpayer's best interest to educate assessors on the realities of leasing in a down market.

MMaherMark Maher is a partner in the Minneapolis-based law firm of Smith Gendler Shiell Sheff Ford & Maher, the Minnesota 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
23

Don't Forfeit Your Right to a Tax Appeal

"In many cases, taxing jurisdictions cannot support or defend the values that are placed on those properties under appeal..."

By Philip J. Giannuario, as published by Commercial Property Executive Blog, August 2010

With real estate values down in all sectors across the nation, tax appeals are climbing to record numbers. In many cases, taxing jurisdictions cannot support or defend the values that are placed on those properties under appeal.

As municipal revenues run thin and state governments cut programs to balance their budgets, those governments understandably want to avoid returning significant amounts of money as tax refunds.

As a result, many taxing authorities are exploiting technicalities in state laws to seek dismissals of valid appeals. That makes it critically important that property owners stay abreast of all state requirements that may bear on tax appeals, and rigorously follow required procedures.

New Jersey's Chapter 91 statute provides a clear example of the kinds of technicalities state's employ. The statute requires the assessor to send a request to the owner of income-producing properties and ask for financial data related to the asset. The owner then has 45 days to respond to the demand. If the owner fails to respond in that time, he or she forfeits the right to challenge that year's assessment.

In a recent New Jersey case, a municipality moved to dismiss an appeal for a failure to respond to the income and expense request. The property owner had designated an agent to receive property tax notices and correspondence. Although the agent received the request, the agent failed to file the form with the municipality.

The owner argued that the strict words of the statute required the assessor to serve the owner directly. The court held that the only address on file was that of the agent, however, and reasoned that the owner was bound by the statute. On those grounds, the court dismissed the case.

The simple lesson to learn from this example is that a number of procedural hurdles exist in each state's tax law. Taxpayers must become knowledgeable about all applicable procedural rules and create failsafe, redundant systems to guard against the needless loss of their tax appeal rights.

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

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Aug
23

Controversy Emerges Over Michigan Business Tax Credits for Industrial Owners

"The tax credits threaten to reduce tax revenue to the state. To minimize lost revenue, taxing entities are attempting to limit use of the tax credits for industrial personal property by seeking to reclassify many of those assets as commercial..."

By Michael Shapiro, Esq., as published by National Real Estate Investor - online, August 2010

Detroit, along with the rest of Michigan is wrestling with two major tax issues that frequently involve litigation and have costly implications for owners of commercial and industrial properties. The first issue relates to the fact that the applicable tax statute in Michigan treats industrial properties differently than office, retail, hotel and other commercial properties.

tax-char 08-20

Starting with the 2008 tax year, the Michigan legislature granted Michigan Business Tax credits to owners of industrial personal property. These credits are intended to offset property taxes and reduce the tax rate levied on industrial personal property.

As the accompanying chart indicates, for the 2009 tax year, Detroit's rate for commercial personal property was $70.92 per $1,000 taxable value (generally 50% of market value). Meanwhile, the personal industrial property rate was $59.14 per $1,000, effectively reduced to $38.44 per $1,000 by the Michigan Business Tax credits.

The tax credits threaten to reduce tax revenue to the state. To minimize lost revenue, taxing entities are attempting to limit use of the tax credits for industrial personal property by seeking to reclassify many of those assets as commercial.

The Michigan Department of Treasury recently announced that it filed almost 10,000 property tax classification cases affecting 2009 property taxes. In addition, state officials have encouraged local communities to file classification appeals in the State Tax Commission for 2010, all with the intent of changing property classifications from industrial personal property to commercial personal property.

Raw deal for industrial owners

Many of the actions have been initiated by the state or local jurisdiction based solely on the name of the owner, and without regard to the actual use of the property or the property's legal classification. If a company's name is Joe's Manufacturing, it will not have a classification action brought against it, whereas Joe's Warehouse will be the subject of such an action.

Because the law involved is relatively new, most taxpayers receiving notice of these appeals have little to no idea what the action involves.

At the heart of the issue is the definition of industrial personal property, and the statute is reasonably clear that personal property located on industrial real property is industrial personal property.

Notwithstanding the statute, the state and State Tax Commission claim that the use of personal property governs its classification and that personal property has to be used for manufacturing or processing in order to be deemed industrial. There is nothing in the applicable statute to support that position, however.

The classification appeals recently filed make it apparent that the state and State Tax Commission recognize their claims may not prevail. As a result, in more recent filings they are seeking to change the classification of the underlying real estate from industrial to commercial.

It appears that most actions by the State Tax Commission and the State have been taken without any property specifics other than the name of the owner. If those reclassifications succeed, then the personal property at the site would also be redefined as commercial and not industrial personal property.

Taxpayers affected by such actions should consult with competent property tax counsel for advice on whether to defend such claims and, if so, how to proceed. In some instances, the government may have missed a critical deadline, which will give taxpayers an additional basis for prevailing.

Backlog of appeals

The second source of property tax litigation in Detroit and other Michigan communities is shared by thousands of property owners across the country. Nearly everywhere in the United States, property values are depressed by as much as 40% or more from where they were before the onset of the recession in December 2007.

And just like local governments in other states, Michigan's taxing entities are strapped for cash and reluctant to voluntarily lower valuations to reflect current market conditions. It's no surprise that thousands of property owners have appealed assessments in hopes of lowering their property tax bills.

What may be surprising to property owners who haven't already filed an appeal is that an unprecedented deluge of valuation protests has slowed down the panel that reviews them. As of July 31, there were approximately 2,600 non-small-claims cases pending before the Michigan Tax Tribunal for the 2008 tax year, and another 5,600 cases for 2009. Approximately 3,900 such new cases have been filed in 2010.

The tax tribunal recently adopted new procedures and is laboring to reduce this backlog and expedite the time it takes cases to move from filing to resolution. Most property tax practitioners applaud the tribunal's recent efforts in this regard. Even so, for anyone considering an appeal, it makes sense to start the process sooner rather than later and get in line to have the case heard.

SHAPIRO_Michael2008Michael Shapiro chairs the tax appeals practice group at Michigan law firm Honigman Miller Schwartz and Cohn LLP. The firm is the Michigan 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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Jul
24

Is the Current Use the Highest & Best Use?

"Appraisers seem conditioned to accept the property's current status, and it is almost politically incorrect to challenge it..."

By Elliott B. Pollack, Esq., as published by Hotel News Resource - July 2010

The first step a real estate appraiser must take before valuing a property is to identify its highest and best use (HBU). Indeed, it is a truism that everything in an appraisal flows from this determination.

HBU is "the reasonable, probable and legal use of vacant land or improved property, which is physically possible, appropriately supported, financially feasible and that results in the highest value." That being said, appraisers rarely conclude that the HBU of a property is different from the current use. Why? Appraisers seem conditioned to accept the property's current status, and it is almost politically incorrect to challenge it. Moreover, the fee structure under which many appraisers function discourages them from taking on this often expansive mission.

Nevertheless, the horrible economic conditions of the last two-plus years have severely undermined the viability of many hospitality properties. As more operations become marginal, appraisers should question whether the profitable years of a particular hotel may be in its past. This is true even if it wouldn't make sense to immediately demolish and construct some other use, or to simply turn the property into a parking lot.

Take the case of a tired, decades-old, un-flagged property that suffers from deferred maintenance. Is it reasonable to conclude that a buyer, or even the current owner, would make the necessary investment to prolong its life much longer? If not, then the appraiser should consider whether the amount of physical, functional and economic obsolescence inherent in the property has numbered its days. Even though operations may continue for another few years, given the lack of alternative uses presently, the effect on appraised value is the same.

With properties struggling to remain viable, the appraiser should research whether or not current hospitality HBU will likely come to an end in the foreseeable future. If that outcome is likely, the appraiser should consider developing a discounted cash flow that incorporates demolition costs and future revenues as a surface parking lot or some other improved use. If similar properties in the area have been demolished or converted to alternate uses, such as housing for senior citizens, then support for a new HBU becomes even stronger.

The appraiser who fails to grapple with the sort of fact pattern set forth above will be doing his client a disservice, and may generate an excessive valuation and an unduly heavy ad valorem tax burden for her client.

Pollack_Headshot150pxElliott B. Pollack is chair of the Property Valuation Department of the Connecticut law firm Pullman & Comley, LLC. The firm is the Connecticut 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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Jul
24

New York Wrestles with 'Takings' Rulings

"In Kelo, the Court held that while government may not take one's property for the sole benefit of another private party..."

By Michael R. Martone, Esq., as published by Globest.com - July 2010

Constitutional limits on the government's power to take property for use by private entities for the public purpose of economic revitalization have been the subject of much debate in New York. The state has struggled to define itself in the wake of the Supreme Court's controversial 2005 ruling in Kelo v. City of New London, which sparked a national debate about the eminent domain power.

In Kelo, the Court held that while government may not take one's property for the sole benefit of another private party, it may do so for the public purpose of economic revitalization. The ruling deferred to the City's taking of private property for inclusion in its redevelopment plan, hoping to revitalize its depressed economy.

The Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment of the Federal Constitution mandates "nor shall private property be taken for public use, without compensation." Kelo says that where a legislature adopts a comprehensive economic plan it determines will create jobs, increase revenues and revitalize a depressed area, the project serves a public purpose and qualifies as a permissible public use under the Takings Clause.

An outraged public ridiculed Kelo as a gross violation of property rights for the benefit of large corporations at the expense of individual property owners. Since the ruling, 43 states have taken legislative action limiting the use of eminent domain. New York, however, has been criticized for failing to take similar action.

Condemnation in New York

Under New York's Eminent Domain Procedure Law, the State must first conduct a public hearing and determine that a taking would serve a public purpose so as to qualify as a public use. Next, the State must provide the property owner with just compensation for property taken. Each step is subject to judicial review.

Historically, it is extremely difficult for affected property owners to challenge a finding of public necessity to prevent a taking. Courts generally defer to a legislative prerogative, and vague definitions of public purpose can be used to justify most seizures. The courts have scrutinized economic revitalization as a justifiable cause for seizure, however, property owners have challenged the power of the Empire State Development Corp. (ESDC) to force the sale of private property.

The ESDC, the state's development arm, can force the sale of property either for a civic purpose or to eradicate urban blight - amorphously defined as substandard and insanitary. Two recent decisions closely examined the ESDC's involvement with private development projects in the name of economic revitalization.

Atlantic Yards Project

In Goldstein v. NYS Urban Development Corp., the Court of Appeals upheld the ESDC's taking of private properties in Brooklyn for inclusion in a 22-acre mixed-use development project known as the Atlantic Yards. The project includes a basketball arena for the New Jersey Nets and 16 commercial and residential high-rise towers.

The ESDC relied upon studies finding that the area was blighted and warranted condemnation for development. The Court noted that the removal of blight is a sanctioned predicate for the exercise of eminent domain and rejected the challenge to the blight findings, accepting as reliable the comprehensive studies supporting the ESDC's determinations.

The Court said it must defer to what is the legislature's prerogative and may intervene only where no reasonable basis exists, which was not the case in Goldstein. The dissent invited close scrutiny of blight findings, arguing that the courts give too much deference to the self-serving determinations of the ESDC.

Columbia University Expansion

Meanwhile, in Kaur v. NYS Urban Development Corp., the Appellate Division rejected as unconstitutional the ESDC's takings to assist Columbia University in building a satellite campus in the Manhattenville area of West Harlem. The court denounced the ESDC's blight determination as mere sophistry that was concocted years after Columbia developed its plans. Citing a conflict of interest, the Court chastised the ESDC for hiring Columbia's own planning consultant to conduct the blight study.

The Court declared that as a private, elite institution, Columbia could not claim a civic purpose to its expansion sufficient to meet the public use standards. That the University was the sole beneficiary of the project is reason alone to invalidate the taking, the Court wrote, especially because the alleged public benefit is incrementally incidental to the private benefits of the project.

The State appealed and it remains to be seen how the Court of Appeals harmonizes the Appellate Division's aggressive Kaur approach with its own deferential Goldstein holding. The rights of property owners throughout the state hang in the balance.

MMartone_ColorCorrected

Michael R. Martone is the Managing Partner in the Mineola law firm of Koeppel Martone & Leistman, L.L.P., the New York State member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys. Michael Martone can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Michael Guerriero contributed to this column. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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Jun
24

When Rent is Not Rent?

"Paying attention to what rent includes can result in lower tax bills..."

By Cris K. O'Neall , as published by Commercial Property Executive Blog - June 2010

Rental income has always been the touchstone for calculating real property values and is a key element in determining taxable value for ad valorem property taxes. Because it plays such a crucial role in the property tax valuation, paying attention to what rent includes can result in lower tax bills.

Rental income for properties such as multi-family residential is closely associated with real estate usage and is easily capitalized into an indication of taxable value. That is not the case, however, for properties used by service-oriented businesses, such as full-service hotels or stores in high-end retail malls. In those situations, the stream of income generated by the facility may represent both a return to the real property as well as to franchises, branding, or a trained and assembled workforce.

In most states, these non-realty rights and assets are not subject to property tax. If local tax assessors calculate assessments using income that includes a return on non-realty elements, the property owner will overpay property taxes.

Similarly, in those situations where landlords participate in their tenants' revenues through percentage rent, taxpayers should determine whether those rents represent a return solely to real property or if they also allow the landlord to share in profits that the tenant generates from customer services and branding. This situation frequently arises when private companies operate in government-owned facilities, such as public airports with privately run concessions.

So, what should investment property owners do? First, determine whether service-oriented businesses are operating in the property or whether percentage-rent arrangements are in effect. If either is the case, contact the local tax assessor and learn the basis for the property's tax valuation. If the assessed value is based on property income, the property tax may be based in part on non-taxable income. In that case, the property should receive a reduction in taxes.

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

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Jun
24

New Appeal

Seeking Reassessment? Act Now, Tax Attorneys Warn

By Suzann D. Silverman as published by Commercial Property Executive, June 2010

With the Federal Reserve repeatedly calling attention to commercial real estate assets' decline in market value and reduced access to financing, taxing jurisdictions have shown greater openness of late to appeals for reduced property taxes. That trend has offered many owners some badly needed breathing room. But as municipalities themselves become more strapped for cash, winning tax appeals looks likely to become much more challenging.

The commercial property sector is a natural place for municipalities to look for revenue, noted Elliott B. Pollack, chairman of the property valuation department of Pullman & Comley L.L.C. and a director of the American Property Tax Counsel. After all, commercial properties already make up a large proportion of communities' tax bases, and most legislators would much rather hike taxes on a local office building than on their constituents.

Some states have enacted tax caps, according to Stephen Paul, a partner at Baker & Daniels L.L.P. and vice president of the Tax Counsel.

But those limits can be deceiving. In Indiana, where he practices, residents' taxes are limited to 1 percent of value, while apartments are capped at 2 percent and commercial property at 3 percent. The risk, Paul said, is that the greatest pressure to raise assessments will be on commercial properties, which have the highest ceiling by percentage.

And when property values do inevitably begin to climb, the raw tax liability will naturally rise with them.

Paul expects a surge in tax litigation to result, with local appeals becoming harder to win and a greater number reaching the state level.

Eventually, these cases will get a fair hearing, he believes, but that outcome may require a time-consuming, expensive effort by owners.

The steady erosion of municipal finances across the country presents an additional reason for concern, according to John E. Garippa, senior partner of Garippa Lotz & Giannuario and president of the Tax Counsel.

While bonding capacity should yield enough cash for municipalities to cover refunds, at least in theory, Garippa foresees potential for reductions in many municipalities' ability to bond. Legislation may also cause delays by extending the deadlines for municipalities to distribute tax refunds.

The predicted rise in interest rates is also likely to have an impact, he noted, driving cap rates up and asset values down. "That's why it's important for clients to be on top of this," he cautioned.

When it comes to property tax disputes, being on top of it means preparing in advance to appeal to ensure that deadlines are met, and then gathering the details necessary to persuade the court. While many property owners file appeals every year (most settle rather than try their luck in the backlogged courts), there are still a good number that do not, Garippa said. But with assessments based on the previous year's data, current assessments may not fully reflect the market downturn. That offers an opportunity to argue for an assessment decrease.

In New York City, for instance, the Real Property Income & Expense filings that the finance department required in 2009 were based on 2008 data, which did not reflect the full extent of the commercial real estate market crash that occurred at year-end 2008, explained Joseph Giminaro, special counselor & co-manager of the tax certiorari department for Stroock & Stroock & Lavan L.L.P. It is too soon to evaluate how the tax commission will view updated data, but Glenn Newman, president of the commission, has indicated that he wants to see all data that shows the difficulties property owners are enduring. "I think it's very favorable that the tax commission is openly saying it wants to hear these stories," Giminaro observed.

That positive attitude seems common nationally. Tax certiorari attorneys, who specialize in tax appeals, are achieving some significant reductions.

In the hospitality arena, for example, "it is not unusual to see total assessments drop by more than a third," said Garippa, who represents some of the nation's largest hotel operators. Big-box stores saw a similar drop in the past year, he noted. Pollack, too, has seen significant decreases; he reports that appeals for hotel properties are typically garnering tax reductions of 20 to 40 percent. And while hotel and retail properties have been subject to the largest overassessments, owners of other property types can also mount successful appeals. Older industrial properties are another big area.

Taxing jurisdictions typically have based value largely on income capitalization and replacement value, not comparable sales, but one area that offers growing potential to strengthen appeals is brand value, since so-called intangible benefits are not taxable. Retail and hospitality properties are the categories whose brand value is most readily recognized by tax courts, according to Paul. Part of hotels' income is derived from the flag, and shopping centers typically count on big-name stores to attract customers.

Mall owners have brought branding to a new level in recent years with efforts for company name recognition among consumers. Office property owners are newer to this strategy and have had less success. However, that will come with time, Paul predicted.

In the meantime, with data now available on the softer market and municipal difficulties looming, "now's the time to take a tax appeal," Paul said.

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Stephen H. Paul is a partner in the Indianapolis law firm of Baker & Daniels LLP, the Indiana member of the American Property Tax Counsel. He can be reached at stephen.paul@bakerd. com

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Elliott B. Pollack is chair of the Property Valuation Department of the Connecticut law firm Pullman & Comley, LLC. The firm is the Connecticut 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.

Garippa
John E. Garippa is senior partner of the law firm of Garippa, Lotz & Giannuario with offices in Montclair and Philadelphia. Mr. Garippa is also president of the American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys, and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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