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Jan
05

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Jan
05

Struggling with Vacancy? You May Get a Break on Property Taxes

To determine whether your property may qualify for relief, identify the market occupancy rate for that property type and submarket.

In many states, abnormally high vacancy at commercial properties should mean a lower tax bill. Market transaction evidence essentially dictates this result: States that assess taxable value on commercial properties based on market value, as though leased at market rents, should allow a deduction from that value when the property incurs above-market vacancy and collection losses.

Would buyers pay as much for a vacant income-producing property as they would for an identical property that is fully leased at market rates? Of course not. For the same reason, in states that value the property as though leased at market rents, below-market occupancy should result in a lower property tax assessment.

To determine whether your property may qualify for relief, identify the market occupancy rate for that property type and submarket. Loan underwriting is a good source of this information because lenders underwrite property loans based on the normal, stabilized occupancy rate.

For example, in many areas lenders assume 95 percent stabilized occupancy for shopping centers. In those areas, a shopping center that is only 80 percent occupied has below-market occupancy and, therefore, is worth less than otherwise similar properties with the higher market occupancy rates.

Similarly, the prospect of the imminent departure of a major tenant reduces the price a buyer would pay, even if the property currently enjoys market occupancy. And a vacant anchor space diminishes value even when the owner continues to receive rent on the dark space. All these circumstances signal an opportunity for property tax relief.

Start the process

If any of these circumstances apply, the best first step is usually to contact the tax assessor's office and inform the appraiser responsible for valuing the subject property. Providing data about the vacancy problem may be all it takes to reduce taxable value in the next assessment.

If this fails to achieve a reduced value, consider a property tax appeal. Engaging counsel experienced with property tax matters will help the owner evaluate the merits of appeal opportunities. Counsel may also be able to give the conversation with the assessor's office a fresh try.

An appraisal may be necessary to support a property tax appeal. The property owner's counsel should help select a good appraiser who can testify, if necessary. Counsel will also instruct the appraiser on what will be needed for property tax purposes.

Deduct a vacancy shortfall

In states where below-market occupancy affects property tax valuation, the appraiser should engage in a two-step analysis. First, determine the property's stabilized value. Then estimate the amount of vacancy shortfall to deduct from the stabilized value to account for the costs, risk, effort and skill that a buyer of the property would require to bring it to stabilized occupancy.

The three components of a vacancy shortfall deduction are direct costs, indirect or opportunity costs and entrepreneurial incentive. Direct costs include tenant improvements and leasing commissions that would be required to lease up the vacant space. Indirect costs include lost rent until the space is leased, lost expense recoveries and any free rent or other concessions the new tenants would require, based on market lease terms.

Finally, the entrepreneurial incentive profit margin represents the additional deduction from the stabilized value that value-add investors require for the extra risk, skill and effort required to bring the property to stabilized occupancy. The entrepreneurial incentive profit margin can range from as little as 20 percent to over 100 percent of the vacancy shortfall costs.

Another approach to account for entrepreneurial incentive is to increase the capitalization rate used in the income approach to calculating stabilized value during the first step. That does not show the effect of the abnormal vacancy as clearly. Ideally, step one includes several valuation approaches rather than relying on the income approach alone and concludes a reconciled value as if stabilized. Then the full effect of the abnormal vacancy can be isolated in the second step of the appraisal (i.e., in the vacancy shortfall analysis).

To value property with below-market occupancy, the appraiser must understand how buyers and sellers treat such properties in actual transactions. The appraiser will need to verify comparable sales prices directly with buyers and sellers or their brokers to determine how they determined the selling price for properties that sold subject to below-market occupancy. Though each party to the transaction may differ in its analysis, both will likely have performed this two-part examination to determine the as-is selling price of the struggling property. This market evidence will bolster the subject property's tax appraisal.

Just as a buyer typically would negotiate a lower price for deferred maintenance such as a leaky roof, buyers pay less for properties struggling with vacancy issues. Typically value-add investors expect a significantly higher return to compensate them for the elevated risks of trying to create additional value. Many states appropriately recognize this in lower property tax assessments.

Michelle DeLappe and Norman J. Bruns are attorneys in the Seattle office of Garvey Schubert Barer, where they specialize in state and local taxes. Bruns is the Idaho and Washington representative 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.  DeLappe can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..​
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Dec
30

Time for your Annual Property Tax Check

Question: What do the following have in common? A developer of a new mixed-use power center. The owner-operator of nursing homes or assisted living facilities. A national retailer with a large distribution center. A 100+ unit multifamily owner or manager. The owner of hotel chain. A high-tech manufacturer with a research and development facility. Answer: They all pay property taxes.

Whether you are a real estate investor or need real estate to house and facilitate your business operation, your real estate taxes will be one of your highest expenses, and one that you must pay even if your property is vacant or underperforming. Now is the time for your yearly check-up on your Ohio properties to determine whether the values that form the basis of your property taxes are fair.

Review your assessment

Start by reviewing the assessment on your tax bills. In Ohio, your tax valuation should reflect a reasonable sale price under typical market circumstances for the land and improvements as of the tax lien date of January 1, 2017. Verify that the information in the county records is accurate. For many Ohio counties, including Cuyahoga, much of this information will be online. Double-check building size, land size, year built, number of stories, etc.

Grounds for a change in value

The following are the most common types of evidence considered by boards of revision, which is the initial reviewing body:

Sale

One way to demonstrate value is with a recent, arm's length sale price. Generally, if a sale occurred within two years of tax lien date, did not include any non-real estate items, and was typically motivated, the price will be good evidence of the real estate value for tax purposes.

Appraisal

An appraisal can also be used to justify a change in value. Appraisal done for tax appeals must value the property as of the tax lien date. The appraiser should also be ready to testify at the hearing. Appraisals for tax appeals may have requirements that are not necessarily present for appraisals for other purposes, such as financing, so it is helpful to talk to someone familiar with the process.

Property Conditions

If there are unusual conditions, severe deferred maintenance, sudden changes in occupancy, or ongoing vacancy issues that affect the value of your real estate, that information should be brought to the attention of the board. Recent sales of properties similar to yours that support a lower value for your property may also help demonstrate that your valuation is incorrect.

Filing Deadline

The deadline to contest your assessment for properties in all Ohio counties is March 31. Because it falls on a Saturday in 2018, the deadline will be extended to April 2. The complaint form can be obtained from the county in which the property is located. The form is only one page; however, there are restrictions on who can file a complaint (i.e. what relationship they have to the property) as well as some technical requirements that may be missed by those unfamiliar with them. Generally, only one complaint can be filed per triennial period, although there are some exceptions.Once the deadline has passed for a particular tax year, the chance to contest that assessment is lost.

Procedure

After your complaint is filed, the local school district where the property is located has the opportunity to file a counter-complaint. After the period to file both complaints and counter-complaints has expired, the county board of revision will schedule a hearing. Each county board has its own rules regarding the submittal of evidence, requests for continuances, etc. At the board of revision hearing you will have the opportunity to explain why the assessment of your property is inaccurate. Boards of revision are not generally bound by the Ohio Rules of Evidence; boards are also empowered to conduct their own research. The board of revision may adopt the value you are seeking; it may make no change, or grant you are partial decrease. It may even increase the value, so it is important to consider carefully before filing a complaint.

Appealing the BOR decision

If you do not agree with the decision of the board of revision (BOR), you can appeal it to the county court of common pleas, or the Board of Tax Appeals (BTA) in Columbus. The BTA is an administrative tribunal that only hears tax related cases. Proceedings at this level are more formal than at the board of revision. Prior to September 29 of this year, a decision of the BTA could be directly appealed to the Ohio Supreme Court. Now any appeals from the Board of Tax Appeals and courts of appeals to the Ohio Supreme Court are discretionary and not as of right. The Supreme Court can decide not to hear your case. It is unclear yet the consequences of this recent legislative change, but there may be an increase in disparate treatment across the state as a result.

School district increase complaints

All Ohio taxpayers should be aware that Ohio is one of the few states (Pennsylvania is another) where school districts are enabled to file an action to get your tax valuation increased. Usually, this occurs when a recent purchase price is higher than the most recent tax assessment. Be aware of how the taxes will be prorated when you are working on a sale transaction. Depending on the timing of the sale, you may end up owing additional taxes for a period during which you did not actually own the property.

No one enjoys paying taxes, but with some research and preparation, you can make sure that your share of the real estate tax burden is fair.

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Dec
29

Great Big Box Win

In The Court Of Appeals Of The State Of Kansas In The Matter Of The Equalization Appeal Of Target Corporation, For The Year 2015 In Sedgwick County, Kansas.

Syllabus By The Court

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Dec
13

Cecilia J. Hyun, Promoted To Partner Of Siegel Jennings

Siegel Jennings is pleased to announce that Cecilia J. Hyun has been promoted to Partner. Ms. Hyun has been an associate at the firm for the past ten years and represents taxpayers in all aspects of the property tax challenge process from local review boards through the Ohio Supreme Court, reviews and monitors property tax assessments, and counsels investors on tax implications of acquisition and disposition.

Ms. Hyun is the 2017 President of CREW Cleveland, a chapter of CREW Network, an organization of approximately 10,000 commercial real estate professionals of all disciplines located in 70+ major markets in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. She previously served as CREW Cleveland's Director of Communications and as the chapter's CREW Network Liaison. In the last 5 years, she has been recognized as CREW Cleveland's Member of the Year, received the chapter's Leadership Award, named after founding member Deborah Rocker Klausner, as well as the Member to Member Business Award.

Her articles on property tax issues have been published in the Heartland Real Estate Business, Properties Magazine, Cleveland Metropolitan Bar Association Bar Journal, and the IPT Insider. Her article, "Big-box retail offers property tax lessons for industrial owners" published in the National Real Estate Investor is referenced in the IAAO Library Big-Box Retail Store Valuation Subject Guide.

Ms. Hyun, based in the firm's Cleveland office, received her B.A. from McGill University in Montreal, Canada, and her J.D., magna cum laude, from the Cleveland Marshall College of Law. 

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Nov
14

Oregon Law Offers Potential For Property Tax Reductions

Properties under construction and projects subject to governmental restriction can take advantage of legislative provisions the state provides.

The Portland metropolitan area is undergoing an unprecedented boom in commercial construction that extends from downtown to the suburbs and into just about every product type.Many taxpayers are preparing to pay larger tax bills, either because they are developing one of those new projects, or because they own properties that are becoming more valuable in response to growing demand for redevelopment sites. This is particularly common in developed areas where infill construction is hot.

Taxpayers in either of those positions may be missing out on significant tax savings if they are unaware of two provisions of Oregon law that could offer some respite. The Oregon legislative has carved out property tax provisions for a property under construction and for a property subject to a governmental restriction. The savvy property owner needs to know about these opportunities and comply with the statutory requirements to achieve the tax benefit.

The provisions are especially relevant to Portland's latest round of development, much of which is concentrated around infill in neighborhoods and on properties that were once used for industrial activities.

It is important to remember that Oregon law bases property taxes on the real market value of the property or the maximum assessed value under the Oregon Limits on Property Tax Rates Amendment of 1997. Also known as Measure 50, this amendment imposed restrictions on future increases in assessed values and on tax rates. Taxing entities multiply the assessed value by the tax rate to calculate the taxes owed.

The state defines "real market value" as the price an informed buyer would pay to an informed seller in an arms-length transaction. The statute goes on to state that if the property is subject to a governmental restriction as to use, "the property's real market value must reflect the effect of those restrictions."

That brings us to the tax-saving opportunities associated with usage restrictions and construction. Taxpayers typically think of government restrictions only as zoning law or a conditional land-use limitation. Often overlooked are environmental restrictions on a property's use, such as when the federal Environmental Protection Agency or the Department of Environmental Quality has identified the land as a contaminated site.

When a property is governed by a qualified environmental remediation plan, it is subject to a governmental restriction on the property's use. Obviously, the contamination and the future costs of remediation or containment significantly reduce the property's real market value.

One way to measure the reduction in market value caused by the government's environmental restrictions is to calculate the present value of the future clean-up costs. The assessing authority will consider the responsibility and costs of remediation or containment, and will usually reduce the real market value of the property significantly.

Another common governmental usage restriction occurs when a governmental agency provides low-interest loans or tax incentives as a means of encouraging development of certain types of public interest projects, such as low-income housing. The government loan will typically require that the property reserve a number of units for lease at a below-market rent.

In Oregon, the statute allows the property owner to choose whether it wants to enter into the special assessment program for low-income housing. A caution to the property owner that enters into the special assessment program for low-income housing is that the property could become subject to back taxes if it later fails to meet the requirements of the county, or of the loan.

Importantly, the statute does not require the property owner to enter the special assessment program to achieve the tax benefit of certain low-income housing units, as long as the loan meets certain statutory requirements and is properly recorded.

Not to be missed is the construction-in-progress exemption, which is available for income-producing properties. Most states encourage the development of commercial and industrial facilities by sheltering construction projects from the payment of taxation until the property is in use or occupied, and therefore generating rental income or enabling an owner-occupier to pursue business activities there.

The construction exemption requires strict compliance with the statute, and inadvertently failing to meet one of the criteria could cost the property owner a year of tax savings. The exemption isn't limited to manufacturing facilities; the Oregon Tax Court has held that this tax exemption is also available to a condominium under construction, provided that the units were held for sale until its completion.

While taxpayers in Portland's hot construction market enjoy many opportunities to take advantage of tax reductions, owners all across the state should be on the alert for these potential reductions.

Cynthia M. Fraser is a partner at the law firm Garvey Schubert Barer where she specializes in property tax and condemnation litigation. Ms. Fraser is the Oregon representative of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys. Ms. Fraser can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..
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Nov
14

Property Taxes Should Reflect Retail’s Apocalyptic Times

Instead, assessors continue to ignore the clear fact that brick-and-mortar retail is in massive decline.

The retail sector is experiencing its darkest period ever, and taxing entities must come to grips with declining shopping center values.

News reports confirm that national retailers are closing stores at a record pace. In 2017 alone, retail mainstays such as JC Penney, Sears and Macy's have shuttered hundreds of stores. Leading market analysts including Credit Suisse and Cushman & Wakefield have predicted the closing of some 10,000 brick-and-mortar stores.

Even worse, many national retailers are filing for bankruptcy protection, with several others on analysts' watch lists. The more than 300 retailers reported to have filed for bankruptcy protection in 2017 include several major brands, from Payless ShoeSource to Gymboree and Wet Seal. These dire conditions have spurred some economists to describe the ongoing blood-bath as a retail apocalypse.

Double Trouble

There are two main reasons for the retail sector's decline:

First, consumer preferences are migrating from shopping at brick-and-mortar stores to more online shopping. Online sales increased by about $40 billion in 2016 and accounted for nearly 42 percent of all retail sales growth that year. Amazon alone accounted for 53 percent of that growth, reportedly quintupling its North American sales to $80 billion in 2016 from $16 billion in 2010.

Second, today's consumers would rather spend their money on experiences than on material goods. They prefer dining out, going to movies and travel over buying more shoes, jeans, and electronics. And when they buy goods, they are increasingly likely to buy them online.

These ongoing changes in consumer behavior have resulted in a disturbingly high inventory of vacant retail space, made worse by years of over-building in the sector. The United States reportedly has 40 percent more retail space per person than Canada, five times more than the United Kingdom and 10 times more than Europe.

Shopping malls have been particularly affected. Once popular destinations, many regional malls now scramble to find quality tenants and to attract shoppers. To survive, some malls have taken desperate measures to steer customers to their stores, such as hosting amusement parks and concerts. Sadly, analysts predict 20 to 25 percent of U.S. shopping malls will close within the next five years. The market is simply oversaturated.

Value Questions

Consequently, retail property value has plummeted. What once was seen as a safe investment is now fraught with risk. Suffering national retailers have made retail real estate riskier as the chances of store closures and tenant bankruptcies have increased. Investors only value retail properties highly when those assets are generating a reliable stream of rental payments from high-quality tenants. But with department stores, electronics retailers and apparel shops boarding up, there is insufficient demand to sustain the rental rates and occupancy levels necessary for many properties to support historical values.

Unfortunately, tax assessors are turning a blind eye to this new reality, continuing to assume that there is a viable market with robust buyer demand for this property type.

In many jurisdictions, tax assessors have even raised taxable values on retail properties. This has obviously created confusion among property owners, as the values assessed by taxing jurisdictions conflict with selling prices that owners can garner on the open market.

When vacant properties go up for sale, they may linger on the market for years. And when they do sell, they are often sold to unconventional users, such as hospitals, trampoline parks, call centers, churches and schools. These buyers know that they can leverage the market oversupply to achieve low acquisition prices.

When owners point to sales of comparable — and often vacant — retail properties as evidence of market value, tax assessors accuse them of applying the "Dark Store Theory," which many assessors have mischaracterized as a tax loophole. Assessors have even convinced news media organizations of this misconception, evidenced by headlines such as "Sinister-Sounding Dark Store Theory Is Corporate Welfare and "How Big-Box Retailers Weaponize Old Stores."

This has fueled an ongoing debate concerning how to properly value the fee-simple interest in income-producing property, which in most jurisdictions is the taxable value.

In essence, tax assessors claim that retail property owners are trying to escape taxation by calculating taxable value based on the asking rents and sales of vacant retail locations, rather than on actual rents and sales of occupied properties. Tax assessors contend that property owners are comparing apples to oranges.

Property owners counter that assessors are overstating real estate value by capturing the additional value of non-taxable assets, such as long-term leases with brand-name retailers.

Despite this debate, there is no hiding the fact that retail is going dark. Shopping malls and oversized big box stores have become largely obsolete, bankruptcies and store closures plague the industry, and the glut of retail space grows. Preferences for on-line shopping and consumer purchasing patterns are here to stay.

We are reaching a point where the "dark store is the norm. The market has turned previous assumptions about variables such as market exposure, vacancy, capitalization rates and market rents on their heads, resulting in a retail meltdown.

Daniel R. Smith is a principal with and general counsel for Austin, Texas law firm Popp Hutcheson PLLC, the Texas member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys. James Johnson is a graduate student at Texas A&M University's Real Estate Center and tax analyst for Popp Hutcheson. They may be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
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Sep
28

Where Has All The Value Gone In Retail?

Telltale signs can signal opportunities for tax reductions in declining retail properties.

For a number of years the mantra in the retail industry has been that retail property values and shopping center values, in particular, will continue to decline because consumers make purchases online rather than in brick-and-mortar stores. While this may be true, simply reciting the words to property tax authorities rarely succeeds in arguing for a reduced assessment.

The best strategy to obtain significant tax reductions for declining retail properties is an analysis of indicators that measure the mall's or shopping center's health. These factors come in four categories: anchor tenants, in-line tenants, tenant occupancy costs and prevailing lease agreements. While these dynamics may not be readily apparent, their analysis is the key to obtaining property tax relief.

Anchor Tenants

Mall anchor tenants have a significant say in how the property is configured, and in the mix of inline tenants. Consequently, when a national chain department store or other anchor tenant starts to experience a decline in sales per square foot, it can send tremors through the entire shopping center. Declining anchor tenant sales grow more serious when the anchor tenant's sales per square foot fall below the national chain-wide average. If the anchor consistently underper­forms the chain-wide average, the store is often deemed a candidate for closure.

Inline Tenants

Inline tenants are the bread and butter of most shopping centers. No other group receives more scrutiny than tenants occupying 10,000 square feet or less. The first thing mall evaluators look for is the types of inline tenants, as well as the trends in those tenant types. Landlords and investors prefer permanent inline tenants over temporary tenants. It is also better to have retail inline tenants than non-retail users, such as offices, government agencies and the like. Of course, the level of inline vacancy is also important because higher vacancy levels may trigger co-tenancy clauses in leases, thereby permitting tenants to vacate before their leases expire.

Tenant Occupancy Costs

The trend in tenants' cost of occu­pancy (COO) may be the best predictor of inline tenants' future performance. By extrapolating COO trends, it is also possible to project a mall's performance several years into the future.

The COO measures the ratio between gross sales and real estate ex­penses, including rent, maintenance charges and other costs that a tenant bears. The COO ratio for Class B and higher malls is usually in the 13 per­cent to 17 percent range, depending on the strength of the tenants, and between 10 percent and 12 percent for lower-end Class C malls.

COO ratios that are higher than these ranges indicate tenants are spending more of their gross revenues to pay property occupancy costs. This reduces the available revenues to pay other operating expenses and, obviously, limits the tenant's profits. Year-over­year increases in COO ratios means tenants are experiencing increasing financial pressure. Eventually, COO ratios become so high tenants will either ask for rent relief or other lease conces­sions, or just walk away.

Prevailing Lease Agreements

Most inline tenants enter into triple­net lease arrangements with the prop­erty owner when a shopping center first opens. Triple-net leases require tenants to pay for maintenance, insur­ance, real estate taxes and other property operating expenses, including the cost for operating common areas within the mall. As a mall declines, inline tenant sales per square foot dwindle, rental rates for new tenants decline and COO ratios increase. At some point, tenants will be unable to pay their rent and still make a profit. At this point, they are likely to ask the mall owner for some type of rent relief.

Rent relief for inline tenants takes different forms, but usually consists of converting triple-net leases to leases paying a percentage of sales, or some­times to gross leases, both of which make the mall owner bear more operating costs. An increase in the number of percentage and gross leases shows that inline tenants are unable to generate enough sales to pay rent and other occupancy expenses.

As more and more leases become percentage or gross leases, the expense burden on the mall owner increases, and the likelihood grows that the mall will close. During this time, the mall owner may replace departing inline tenants with new tenants that demand gross lease arrangements, which further contribute to the mall's decline.

Seek Early Property Tax Relief

The four factors discussed above are interrelated. The progression of falling dominoes starts when the anchor tenant's sales begin to decline. This then leads to a fall in the number of permanent inline retailers, a rise in COO ratios, and the replacement of preferred triple-net leases with percentage or gross leases. All these factors put downward pressure on a retail property's value, which typically reduces the property's tax assessment.

Most of this sequence cannot be observed because it happens below the surface, but it may be the precursor to a mall's failure. Thus, the local property tax authority may not realize a mall is in decline until it falls off the cliff, as when an anchor tenant closes its doors or high-end retailers fail to renew their leases and move to other malls.

Astute retail property owners and operators will identify the underlying problems in a mall or shopping center early on, and bring those difficulties to the attention of the local tax assessor. Doing so may reduce taxes - and mall operating expenses - well before a property is in free-fall mode. If the tax relief is significant and obtained early in the process, it may even extend the life of the mall.

Cris K. O'Neall is a shareholder at the law firm Greenberg Traurig, LLP and focuses his practice on ad valorem property tax assessment counseling and litigation. The firm is the California 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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Sep
25

Louisiana: Tax Exemption For Partially Completed Construction?

Passage of a new ballot initiative will confirm exemption of partially completed property from taxation."

Any taxpayer planning to develop a new property must consider how local taxing entities will treat the project during construction, but the question is especially important in evaluating and comparing overall costs of potential development locations during an industrial site search.

States generally recognize Construction Work in Progress (CWIP) as property that is in the process of changing from one state to another, such as the conversion of machinery, construction materials and other personal property from inventory into an asset or fixture by installation, assembly or construction. There is no clear consensus among taxing jurisdictions as to whether (or how) a tax assessor should value such par­tially completed construction on the applicable assessment date.

Many states including Alabama, Missouri and North Carolina value CWIP based on the value or percentage of completion on the assessment date. Kansas values incomplete construction based on the cost incurred as of the assessment date. Florida, Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia assess CWIP when the work has progressed to a degree that it is useful for its eventual purpose. And in South Carolina, improvements are only assessed upon completion.

With the exception of a few errant assessments in the early 1930s, Louisiana has never assessed partially completed construction for property tax purposes. Rather, taxing jurisdictions assess and add the completed property to tax rolls as of January 1 of the year immediately following completion of construction. This complements Louisiana's industrial tax exemption program, which exempts certain manufacturing property from ad valorem taxation for a specified number of years.

Unfortunately, properties on which ad valorem taxes have been paid are ineligible for participation in the exemption program. Thus, if a taxpayer has paid taxes on a project as partially completed construction, the property is no longer eligible for the industrial tax exemption and remains on the taxable rolls, subject to assessment each year. Obviously, assessing projects with partially finished construction in this manner would significantly diminish the value of the exemption pro­gram to taxpayers and undermine its usefulness to economic develop­ment agencies as an incentive tool.

In 2016, a local assessor broke with established practice and initiated an audit that included construction work in progress on a major industrial taxpayer. This audit raised statewide and local uniformity concerns over the assessment of a single taxpayer's partially completed construction in a single parish, and jeopardized the taxpayer's existing industrial tax exemption.

The taxpayer immediately filed an injunction action in district court, and the Louisiana Legislature took up the situation during its regular 2017 legislative session. Recognizing the need to formalize the exemption, the Legislature referred to voters a constitutional amendment that would codify the exemption of construction work in progress from assessment. Louisiana is one of 16 states that require a two-thirds supermajority in each chamber of the Legislature to refer a constitutional amendment to the ballot, so their vote underscores the strong support among lawmakers to codify the exemption.

Act 428 would add a subsection to Article VII, Section 21 of the Louisiana Constitution, which lists property that is exempt from ad valorem tax assessment. The new provision would exempt from ad valorem tax all property delivered to a construction project site for the purpose of incorporating the property into any tract of land, building or other construction as a component part. This exemption would apply until the construction project is completed (i.e. occupied and used for its in­tended purpose).

The exemption would not apply to (1) any portion of a construction project that is complete, available for its intended use, or operational on the date that property is assessed; (2) for projects constructed in two or more distinct phases, any phase of the construction project that is complete, available for its intended use or operational on the date the property is assessed; (3) certain public service property.

If voters approve the ballot item, CWIP will be exempt from property taxes until construction is "completed." The proposed amendment defines a completed construction as occurring when the property "can be used or occupied for its intended purpose." The exemption would thus remain effective until the construction project or given construc­tion phases of the project are ready to be used or occupied.

A constitutional amendment does not require action by the Governor. This constitutional amendment will be placed on the ballot at the state­wide election to be held on Oct. 14, 2017.

Angela Adolph is a partner in the law firm of Kean Miller LLP, the Louisiana member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys. She can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..
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