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Oct
30

Undermining A Public Purpose

"Economic development tools are under assult in Louisiana by tax assessors"

Louisiana tax assessors have begun assessing taxes on properties that have been exempt from property tax under economic development incentive programs, undermining one of the state's essential tools for promoting job growth and commerce.

Louisiana offers a handful of enticements to attract new business and spur economic development, including the industrial property tax exemption, inventory tax credits, payments in lieu of taxes (PILOTs) and cooperative endeavor agreements (CEAs) with private companies. Each of these incentives involves reducing a private entity's property tax liability.

Article 7, Section 14 of the Louisiana Constitution authorizes the state and its political subdivisions to enter into cooperative endeavor agreements that serve a public purpose, and Section 21 of the same article provides that public lands and other public property used for public purposes are exempt from property tax. The Louisiana Supreme Court has also recognized that economic development is a public purpose.

Under a typical cooperative endeavor agreement, a political subdivision leases industrial property to a private entity for development and operation. Since a political subdivision owns the property, it is exempt from property taxes. Unfortunately, some assessing authorities have decided otherwise, and have attempted to collect property tax in connection with these assets.

In Pine Prairie Energy Center LLC vs. Soileau, in 2014, a local industrial development board issued bonds and loaned the proceeds to privately held Pine Prairie to build an underground natural gas storage facility and associated facilities and pipelines. Prior to entering into the transactions, the industrial development board, Pine Prairie, and even the local tax assessor all agreed that, as long as Pine Prairie paid the agreed-upon lease payments and payments in lieu of taxes, the property would be exempt from property taxes during the lease period.

Pine Prairie built the facility, sold it to the industrial development board and then leased the property back for operations. The assessor subsequently listed the property on the tax rolls as Pine Prairie's property. Pine Prairie paid the taxes under protest and sued for a refw1d and declaratory judgment that it did not owe property taxes on an asset owned by the industrial development board.

The assessor contended that the property was not being used for a public purpose. The Third Circuit Court of Appeal noted that actual public use was not the criteria by which public purpose was determined. Rather, public use is synonymous with public benefit, public utility or public advantage, and involves using the natural resources and advantages of a locality to extract their full development in view of the general welfare.

Considering that Pine Prairie's investment resulted in approximately $700 million in local economic value, the court held that the project was beneficial to the public and thus the property was indeed being used for a public purpose.

In Board of Commissioner of Port of New Orleans vs. City of New Orleans, the Port of New Orleans leased property to two private entities that provide warehousing, freight forwarding and intermodal transportation services at the port. As i n Pine Prairie, the assessor assessed property taxes on the private companies that leased the properties, not on the public entity that owned them. When the companies failed to pay the taxes, the assessor attempted to sell the leased properties at a public tax sale.

The assessor argued that, because the activities of the private companies did not qualify as a public purpose as they did not constitute a governmental function, a benefit to the general public or a dedication for use by the general public, the property was not being used for a public purpose. The port authority demonstrated that the companies' activities were necessary for the operation of a port facility and that they furthered its broad public mission to maintain, develop and promote commerce and traffic at the port. The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal punted on the question in 2014, and ordered a hearing on whether the specific activities conducted by the companies served a public purpose. That case is ongoing.

Cases like these obviously erode business confidence in the reliability of tax incentives. Although Pine Prairie won its case, it had to pay some $122,000 in taxes under protest and then sue to recover its funds. And the Port of New Orleans had its property seized and offered at tax sale, and now has to prove up that traditional port activities like warehousing, freight forwarding and intermodal transportation services, which have always been necessary to the operation of a port facility, serve a public purpose. This kind of uncertainty is devastating to economic development efforts.

Adolph Angela

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..

Oct
08

Overstating the Case

To Save on Property Taxes, Beware of Inaccurate Valuations

Every year, the dreaded property tax envelope hits the desk of tax managers and property owners. Despite the anxiety that accompanies this event, surprisingly few taxpayers take reasonable steps to learn whether or not their tax documents may be overstating their liability. Many property owners simply pop an antacid and write a check to cover the bill.

Property taxes are a necessary evil be-cause in most jurisdictions, they are the primary source of revenue for funding schools, social services and other government functions. That said, of course, property taxes are also a major cost item. Approaching an assessment with a healthy dose of skepticism and an eye for common errors is a good way for owners to ensure that they are paying only their fair share of the tax burden.

Assessing property for taxation starts with determining real market value. The leased fee value of the property, or the going-concern value of a business, are inappropriate criteria for assessment and should raise red flags when they appear in a property tax review.

In a review, evaluate the origins of the property assessment to determine whether the assessed amount reflects the property's real market value. For example, if state law provides that a sale or other transfer resets real market value for tax purposes, the reviewer needs to evaluate the entire transaction.

The purchase price of a fully leased commercial building will typically reflect the value of a leased fee. The sale can reflect a higher value than it would if the property were vacant because the purchaser is achieving an immediate return on investment from in-place rents. If an asset's sale price is recorded as its taxable value, without an evaluation of market rents and lease-up costs to determine real market value, the owner will be overpaying taxes.

Similarly, the purchase of real estate within a business transaction may include compensation for goodwill, an in-place work force, management and other intangible assets that are not taxable in most jurisdictions. In order to properly reflect the value of the real property, the assessor must exclude these intangibles from the sale price, as only tangible real property is taxable.

In a complex, multi-property transaction, the buyer's appraiser typically conducts a mass appraisal of the portfolio rather than analyzing each asset in depth. However, this practice may overlook issues that affect the value of individual properties.

An allocation appraisal of that nature may overvalue a property that is encumbered by governmental restrictions which limit its development potential. Likewise, a property that carries significant environmental liability can be overvalued, resulting in a tax assessment that exceeds the asset's real market value. Drilling down to the level of the individual asset prior to reporting the sale value to the assessor may help cut the tax bill significantly.

Another overlooked source of savings hinges on recognizing that construction costs do not necessarily equate with a property's real market value. Assessors like to use the cost approach to set real market value, because it is simple and relies on the property owner's documentation of costs. But what about added costs that don't affect value?

Suppose, for instance, that the design of a manufacturing facility calls for a stairway in a certain place, but because local regulations require the stairway to be farther from manufacturing activity, an inspector directs the builder to move it. The change adds $200,000 to the project's cost without adding to the facility's real market value.

Another kind of overstatement often results when an owner builds an addition. Temporary walls, electrical infrastructure and extra labor may be required in order for the occupant to keep functioning normally. These items increase the owner's out-of-pocket costs without adding to the property's real market value. Keeping track of such costs can result in significant tax savings.

Awareness of these often overlooked pitfalls offers opportunities to trim the annual property tax bill. So between the time the bill comes in and the payment goes out, it is crucial to evaluate the bases for real market value. That will go a long way toward determining whether the assessment–and the dill–are correct.

CfraserCynthia 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..

Sep
01

Texas Legislature Retains Equal and Uniform Property Tax Remedy

Tax relief was a hot topic from the very beginning of the session, with lawmakers submitting bills in both the House and the Senate proposing property tax, sales tax and franchise tax relief.

The 84th Texas legislative session followed a pre-session spectacle that seemed to promise heated debates over property tax issues, but ended with no casualties or otherwise drastic changes to the state’s property tax remedies and system.

Legislators submitted some 332 property tax bills. Among those were several bills addressing grumblings raised in the news media as to the equal-and-uniform remedy, unique to Texas and instrumental in granting its taxpayers property tax relief. The remedy holds that a property’s appraised value must be equal to or less than the median appraised value of a reasonable number of comparable properties appropriately adjusted.

In the end, the legislature passed about 65 bills, granting tax relief to property owners, making tweaks to the property tax system and leaving the equal-and-uniform remedy intact.

Tax relief was a hot topic from the very beginning of the session, with lawmakers submitting bills in both the House and the Senate proposing property tax, sales tax and franchise tax relief. Eventually, the legislature increased the homestead exemption for school district property taxes from $15,000 to $25,000, effective for the 2015 tax year. In addition, the legislature reduced franchise taxes by 25 percent.

In another effort to grant property tax relief, the law will now require a taxing entity to achieve a 60 percent majority vote, rather than a simple majority, to adopt a property tax rate that exceeds the effective tax rate. The effective rate is the tax rate that would achieve the same amount of revenue as the previous year’s taxes. Additionally, the interest rate taxing entities must pay on refunds resulting from the final determination of a taxpayer’s property value increased to 9.5 percent until the refund is made.

As expected, the equal-and-uniform tax relief provision garnered considerable discussion. In recent years, countless articles and interviews criticizing commercial property owner’s “abuse” of the equal-and-uniform remedy circulated in the industry. Although the Constitution guarantees equal and uniform taxation, opponents alleged the remedy had shifted the property tax burden from commercial property owners to homeowners.

On the reverse side, commercial property owners advocated fair and equitable treatment in a district’s valuation of their property, and wanted a right to pursue their equal and uniform remedy through litigation, just like homeowners do.

The equal-and-uniform remedy for commercial property owners was at risk going into the session, and a few lawmakers introduced a handful of bills that would have substantially limited or completely eliminated the remedy for commercial property owners. Those bills failed to gain momentum, however, and none passed out of committee.

Instead, to address both appraisal district and taxpayer concerns over the perceived misuse and the general preservation of the equal and uniform remedy, lawmakers eventually passed a compromise bill. House Bill 2083 amending the tax code provides that any equal-and-uniform analysis must be based on the application of generally accepted appraisal methods and techniques.

At the same time, it recognizes a property owner’s right to give an opinion as to the value of his own property. While increasing the standard under which an equity analysis must be prepared and reviewed, the new law leaves the equal-and-uniform remedy in place for all taxpayers.

Several other measures adopted during the legislative session seek to secure taxpayer access to relief. The legislature expanded the availability of arbitration as an alternate means to appeal property values, for example.

Now, commercial property owners with a property appraised at $3 million or less may appeal directly through binding arbitration instead of having to file an appeal in district court. This replaces the previous $1 million threshold, making the remedy available to more commercial property owners.

Another new law aims to facilitate the process for lawsuit settlement by requiring parties to attend settlement conferences before incurring unnecessary expenses. And lawmakers passed other laws directed at addressing taxpayer concerns over exemptions, applications and other procedures.

A legislative session is sometimes more notable for the measures that failed to pass. At least one failed bill proposed to allow appraisal districts to recover their attorneys’ fees should they prevail in district court, as taxpayers are currently allowed. Another would have provided for a 5 percent appraisal cap on all property, disregarding studies suggesting that caps are ineffective tax relief measures that run contrary to equal-and-uniform taxation. Neither these nor some of the more curious bills received much attention.

Ultimately, despite warnings of the looming collapse of the equal-and-uniform remedy, the bills that passed were uncontroversial. The equal-and-uniform remedy for commercial property owners remains secure, and other passed amendments will generally benefit property owners.

MelissaRamirez150Melissa Ramirez is a principal with the Austin law firm of Popp Hutcheson P.L.L.C., which focuses its practice on property tax disputes and is the Texas member of American Property Tax Counsel (APTC), the national affiliation of property tax attorneys. Ms. Ramierz can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Sep
01

How Assessors Incorrectly Classify Property to Overstate Values

Where the value of commercial properties has failed to keep pace with local governments’ revenue needs, real estate assessors have pursued unconventional arguments and valuation methods to protect and grow the property tax base. Among those arguments and methods, assessors increasingly contend that manufacturing and other commercial properties are “special-purpose properties,” and therefore the property tax assessments on these assets should exceed the value that would result from the use of traditional market data.

While special-purpose properties certainly exist, these assessors’ arguments typically fail in three ways. First, they erroneously confuse limited-market property with special-purpose property. Second, they refuse to consider available market evidence that, even if imperfect, provides information about the value of the property. Third, even when a property is a special-purpose property, assessors often value the wrong interest, valuing more than the fee simple real estate, for example.

Wrong definition, incorrect assessments

The Dictionary of Real Estate Appraisal defines special-purpose property as "[a] limited-market property with a unique physical design, special construction materials, or a layout that restricts its utility to the use for which it was built; also called special-design property.” Thus, special-purpose property is both a limited-market property and a property having a unique physical design, special construction materials or a layout that restricts it to the use for which it was built. By definition, special-purpose properties are a subset of limited-market properties; they are not synonymous.

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A subset, not the same set

In general, special-purpose properties are a subset of limited-market properties, which are a small subset of commercial properties.

Appraisers often identify certain categories of property as special purpose, such as churches, schools, railroad stations and sports arenas. But such properties, in addition to being limited-market properties, also reflect specific evidence of unique physical design, highly restricted use and/or special construction materials.

The facts of a New Jersey case illuminate the difference between properties with special features and special-purpose properties. In Ford Motor Co. vs. Township of Edison, the New Jersey Supreme Court in 1992 concluded that an automotive manufacturing plant was a general-purpose property, even though it was constructed with heavy steel framing, paint booths, baking ovens, massive boilers, terrazzo amenities, and electrical, steam and plumbing infrastructure that exceeded normal industrial requirements. Although the property was a limited-market property, the court noted that “[a] property does not qualify as special-purpose where it possesses certain features which, while rendering the property suitable to the owner’s use, are not truly unique.”

Importantly, whether a property is special-purpose is a fact-specific inquiry, and courts rightly reject attempts to classify properties as special-purpose in the absence of evidence that the property is special-purpose. Other cases reinforcing this concept include a 2015 decision in Certain Teed Corp. vs. County of Scott, in which a Minnesota tax court rejected the contention that a shingle factory was a special-purpose property; and TD Bank vs. City of Hackensack, a 2015 case in which a New Jersey tax court rejected an argument that a bank branch is a special-purpose property.

Refusal to consider market data may lead to higher assessments

Assessors typically argue that special-purpose properties may only be valued using the cost approach; that market comparable sales may not be used to value special-purpose property, and/or that the value of the special-purpose property is so intimately tied to the property’s owner or user that the assessor must use income from business operations (as opposed to rents) to value the property.

These arguments share a flawed premise that, due to the property’s unique nature, there is simply no market data available to value the property. These arguments often fail because they conflict with real world evidence.

For example, while it may be true in a given case that there are few or no comparable market transactions for a special-purpose property, this is not an appraisal rule or point of law. That is why the Minnesota Supreme Court in 2007 reversed the decision of a tax court that had refused to consider available sales data based on the classification of the property as special-purpose. In that case, Southern Minnesota Beet Sugar Coop vs. County of Renville, the Court acknowledged that if market transactions exist and shed light on the value of a special-purpose property, it should be considered even if adjustments must be made to account for differences between the comps and the subject property.

Just as it is wrong to refuse categorically to consider market transactions when valuing special-purpose property, it is inappropriate to consider taxpayer-specific income data reflecting more than the value of the real property. For example, special-purpose manufacturing properties are seldom rented in the market. Attempting to value the real estate based on non-rental income from the manufacturing operations would produce a highly misleading estimate of value, since such income is derived from non-real estate elements such as intangibles and personal property. Examples of intangibles include an in-place work force, intellectual property and goodwill; personal property includes items such as manufacturing machinery and equipment.

Given the tenuous link between manufacturing income or business income and the value of a special-purpose property in which the manufacturing occurs, taxpayers can—and should—object to the assessor’s use of such income information to value the real property, even if it is a special purpose property.

When assessors increase assessments or defend excessive assessments by claiming that the property is special-purpose, taxpayers should request the evidence on which the classification and the valuation are based. In many cases, taxpayers will find that such assessments lack support, conflict with generally accepted appraisal practices, and should be appealed.

Suess David photo

David Suess is a Partner in the Indianapolis law firm of Faegre Baker Daniels LLP, the Indiana member of the American Property Tax Counsel. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Jul
29

A (Tax) Tale of Two Campuses

With apologies to Charles Dickens, a tale of two corporate office campuses underscores the fickle nature of real estate fads and the difficulty property owners face in convincing tax tribunals that standard valuation matrices may not apply in properly assessing these large, suburban properties.

Aetna’s challenge

Aetna Life Insurance Co. developed more than 1.6 million sq. ft. of corporate and computer center space together with parking garages in the early 1980s in a rural area of Middletown, Conn., spending almost $170 million in the process. In 1995, the property owner challenged the city’s $250 million market valuation.

Aetna held that the property’s highest and best use was as a multi-tenant office project, rather than as a corporate headquarters designed for its exclusive use. This argument seemed reasonable because, among other matters, the developer had built the property with large atria and excessive common areas, together with a number of special amenities such as cafeterias and recreational space which a typical office building would not contain. These amenities obviously drove up the assessor’s value, but mattered little in the market place.

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The city contended that since the property was used as a corporate headquarters, its highest and best use was its continued use for that purpose, and that regardless of its inefficient features and super adequacies, it was typical of headquarters structures. In that sense, the highest and best user, not use, determined
market value.

Key to the owner’s argument in the tax appeal was that the reproduction cost was legally suspect because it was highly unlikely that anyone would reproduce such a quirky, outmoded structure as the 20th century ended. The owner argued that the situation called for a replacement cost approach that would eliminate the inefficiencies and super adequacies of the property.

Although a Connecticut appellate court upheld the trial court’s reliance on the reproduction cost approach, when Aetna’s occupancy concluded in 2010 and the property owner was unable to find another headquarters corporate occupant, it demolished the building—albeit too late to affect the valuation case.

Union Carbide’s conundrum

Union Carbide Corp. moved to Danbury, Conn. from New York City in 1985. It selected a beautifully wooded location close to the New York border to construct an idiosyncratic, multi-level property that floated above the site in so dramatic a fashion that many of its occupants referred to the building as “Battlestar Galactica.” Faced with excessive operating costs and a declining need for such a large area under one roof, Union Carbide reduced its occupancy, but was unable to find many subtenants.

The development’s unusual qualities and its practical insufficiencies prompted a property tax appeal. The company argued, as had Aetna, that whatever the construction cost might have been, the assessor should base its campus’ market value on replacement cost and/or income analysis. The resulting value, the company maintained, was far less than the one the City of Danbury’s assessor had produced.

Here again, the court was unsympathetic, given the huge amount of money spent on development, a juicy sale-leaseback deal which had little relationship to market realities, and what was likely the prevailing view 20 years ago that cost equals value.

Value the use, not the user

A valuation that relies on a single corporate occupant or user assumes a sale to a similar occupant. That essentially converts the market-value-in-exchange analysis, which is legally required in most states, to a market-value-in-use construct.

In the second decade of the 21st century we know that these buildings are seldom re-used by single occupants. Demolishing a bad decision, as with Aetna’s Middletown campus, or subdividing the structure for multiple users as in the case of Union Carbide, is far more likely.

Reliance by local assessors on the single occupant, value-in-use theory ignores the much greater likelihood of multiple occupancy, with attendant significant renovation, subdivision and tenant improvement costs, as well as a considerable period of vacancy while the building is marketed for lease.

The Egyptian pharaohs coerced thousands of slaves to build their pyramids three millennia ago, creating the classic single-user structure in the process. While these potentates succeeded in creating their brand and in making a profound statement about their majesty and importance, both in life and in death, most corporate campus headquarters lack these qualities and must stand the test of economic utility.

That so many campuses failed is one of the dramatic real estate stories of the last 40 years or so. Owners faced with appealing the assessments of overvalued headquarters assets today should emphasize that whether or not value in use to the user was ever a valid yardstick, is utterly irrelevant today.

pollackElliott B. Pollack is a member and Valuation Department chairman in the law firm of Pullman & Compley LLC, the Connecticut 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.  Melton Spivak, retired, was vice president of corporate property taxes for JPMorgan Chase & Co.

Jul
23

Commercial Use Can Trigger Tax on Tax-Exempt Property

Utah property owners should be aware of tax laws that may even apply to tax-exempt properties.

When a business owner leases property that is exempt from property tax and then uses that property in connection with a for profit business, local taxing entities may have authority to tax the property's user. Whether and to what extent that tax applies will vary by state, but in some states, including Utah, the property user's tax burden can be significant.

Under Utah law, the assessing authority may impose a privilege tax in "the same amount that the ad valorem property tax would be if the possessor or user were the owner of the property," according to the state's tax code. But because Utah's privilege tax is an all-or-nothing tax, local authorities cannot impose the tax unless the user has exclusive possession of the exempt property.

In 2012, the Utah Supreme Court had its first opportunity to determine what constitutes exclusive possession. In Alliant Techsystems Inc. vs. Salt Lake County Board of Equalization, the court identified a three-part test for determining exclusive possession and then remanded the case back to the district court to apply the test.

In April of this year, the Utah Court of Appeals upheld the district court's decision that the user of the exempt property did not have exclusive possession and could not be assessed a privilege tax for its for-profit use of that property. Details of the case, then, may provide important insight for companies in similar circumstances.

Control Issues

Alliant Techsystems Inc., the taxpayer in these appeals, is a for-profit aerospace and defense products corporation that operates on its own property, as well as on the Naval Industrial Reserve Ordnance Plant, a property owned by the U.S. Navy. Alliant and the Navy entered into a facilities-use agreement that governs the company's use of the ordnance plant. In 2000 and for all subsequent years, Salt Lake County imposed a privilege tax on Alliant for its use of the ordnance plant. The county based the amount of the tax on the full value of the exempt property.

Alliant challenged the county's assessment of the privilege tax on the basis that it did not have exclusive possession of the property due to the control retained by the Navy. The Salt Lake County Board of Equalization, the Utah State Tax Commission and then the district court concluded that Alliant had exclusive possession of the ordnance plant because no other party had an agreement with the Navy to use the property. ·

Alliant appealed to the Utah Supreme Court, which interpreted exclusive possession to mean exclusive as against all parties, including the property owner.

Utah's Test

The Utah Supreme Court's three-part test for exclusive possession requires that the user or possessor have (1) the general power to admit or exclude others, including the property owner, from any present occupation of the property; (2) the authority to make broad use of the property, with only narrow exceptions; and (3) possession and control of a definite space for a definite time.

Alliant relied on several points to demonstrate that it lacked exclusive possession of the Navy's ordnance plant, due to the control retained by the Navy:  For one, the Navy had erected a fence surrounding the property, and posted signs stating that the property belonged to the United States government. Additionally, the parties' operating agreement stated that unauthorized use of the property could result in fines, imprisonment or both.

Alliant also pointed out that the facilities-use agreement permitted the Navy to terminate Alliant's right to use the property at any time and for any reason, and at any time to change or terminate the list of facilities that the company may use. The Navy maintained onsite representatives to manage some of the ordnance plant's operations.

Finally, Alliant lacked authority to exclude the Navy or anyone authorized by the Navy from the property; neither could the company use the property for non-Navy purposes without permission from the Navy.

The county didn't dispute these points, and the district court held that Alliant lacked exclusive possession of the ordnance plant property and was exempt from the privilege tax. The county appealed the decision and the Utah Court of Appeals upheld the district court's decision.

Whether a state can tax the business use of exempt property by a lessor will depend on how each state's tax laws are written. If the tax is based on the full value of the property, and the lessor can demonstrate that the property owner maintains control of the property, the user may challenge the tax as violating the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution, which establishes the supremacy of federal law (and federally established tax exemptions) over state and local laws. Alliant raised that challenge in its appeals, put the court declined to address the constitutional challenge because its interpretation of the statute fully resolved the matter.

Stephen Young Sept 2014Stephen P. Young is a partner in the law firm of Holland & Hart, the Montana, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming 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..

Jul
22

Use Vigilance To Lower Tax Assessments

A firm understanding of how assessors apply market data locally comes in handy for savvy owners.

The real estate market is flourishing, as articles in Heartland Real Estate Business seem to confirm. Recent headlines such as “General Contractors are off to a Running Start,” and “Speculative Industrial Construction is Making a Come Back in St. Louis Market,” certainly are encouraging to readers.

But investors must remain diligent in keeping their assessed property values in check, or risk paying for their complacency later.

By monitoring assessments and challenging them when necessary, taxpayers can maximize profit and stay competitive when the cycle inevitably reaches its peak and the market begins to slide.

To minimize taxes, every taxpayer should understand the property tax system. That requires a grasp of local market dynamics and how assessors apply market data in establishing assessments.

Real estate taxes are merely a function of the tax rate multiplied by the assessment. The assessment is the measure that, if applied equally, and based solely upon bare real estate, that measure will yield uniform taxation for you.

Assessments tend to follow Newton’s law of inertia. Sales often set assessments in motion, but that doesn’t mean that sale prices always lead to assessments.

Price Versus Value

Too often, assessors confuse price with taxable value. Assessed or taxable value should be based on real estate alone. Sale prices, on the other hand, often reflect other factors that greatly affect the sale.

For instance, the business acumen of tenants and property managers often influence commercial property prices.

The lodging industry has an abundance of business and personal property value that is often difficult to distinguish from real estate value.

Hotel buyers are often purchasing in-place contracts, a workforce, personal property, reservation systems, the reputation of food and beverage providers, and other intangible items. As a result, the business value of a hotel tends to fluctuate more rapidly than the actual value of the “bricks and sticks.”

Because these intangible elements are factored into the sale, an assessment that is later based on the sale price will reflect more than the real estate value, unless the taxpayer takes the right steps to prevent that from happening.

What to look for

It is possible to strip away non-taxable components and turn a sale into a useful indicator of market value. An assessor can rely on a properly adjusted sale in the assessment of the subject property, and when valuing comparable properties. But what is the proper method of adjustment?

Excluding intangibles from taxable value can be an elusive goal. Investors often place tremendous value on the credit-worthiness of tenants, length of lease terms and other non-real-estate items. Those components depend on the occupant’s business rather than upon the location or condition of property improvements.

For assessment purposes, sales must be adjusted to reflect what the price would be if the tenant were a typical market tenant, paying market rent under current market lease terms.

State nuances

Taxpayers should consider not only the sale itself when evaluating for assessment, but also the particular state’s laws concerning assessments. For instance, Ohio recently amended its statutes to preserve it in assessments. Prior to the amendment, an assessor “must” have considered a recent sale price to be the new assessment of the property, regardless of any non-real-estate factors that might have affected the sale price.

Under the amended statute, assessors “may” use the sale, assuming that the sale reflects the “fee simple as if unencumbered value.” Thus, Ohio now takes a more nuanced approach, assessing properties based on market rents rather than in-place contract rents, along with the intention that assessors use market occupancy and market creditworthiness in assessments.

Taxpayers in other states have challenged assessment statutes to achieve more equal and taxation. Courts in Michigan addressed the concept of build-to-suit leases and contract rents, which the initial tenant pays in part to repay the developer’s costs, making contract rents incomparable with market rents.

Michigan now requires assessors to utilize market rents and other market indices to determine market value. Likewise, courts in Kansas and Wisconsin have established case law recently that requires more equal and assessment practices.

While there may be similarities between some states regarding their assessment laws, and a general trend of states moving toward more assessment, all states apply their laws differently.

Taxpayers must give due care to their state’s distinct approach.

KJennings90J. Kieran Jennings is a partner in the law firm of Siegel Jennings Co. LPA, the Ohio and Western Pennsylvania 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..

Jul
13

The Logical and Proper Determination of The True Cash Value of Big Box Stores

I. The Valuation Problem
 
In Michigan, the property tax valuation standard is true cash value (“TCV”), statutorily defined as “usual selling price” (MCL 211.27). There are no exceptions. The valuation standard applies to all taxable property including, for example, apartment complexes, office buildings, shopping centers, single family homes and the subject of this article: “big box retail stores.” As used in this article, big box retail store means the real property comprising an existing free standing retail store with a building area of approximately 80,000 square feet or more.

It is imperative that value to the owner not be substituted for TCV (i.e. usual selling price or market value). In Rose Bldg Co. v. Independence Twp. 436 Mich. 620; 462 N.W.2d 25 (1990), the Michigan Supreme Court held:

The Constitution requires assessments to be made on property at its cash value. This means not only what may be put to valuable uses, but what has a recognizable pecuniary value inherent in itself, and not enhanced or diminished according to the person who owns or uses it. [Emphasis in original.]

Before a big box store’s usual selling price can be concluded, the identity of the interest in the property being appraised must be identified. Different interests in any given property can have significantly different values. Paraphrasing well-known author and real property appraiser David Lennhoff, “you can’t get the right value unless you value the right rights.”

This article focuses specifically on owner-occupied big box stores. Because the properties are owner-occupied, there is no lease in place and no leased fee interest. TCV for owner-occupied property is based on the fee simple interest in the property. Fee simple interest is defined as follows:

Absolute ownership unencumbered by any other interest or estate, subject only to the limitations imposed by the governmental powers of taxation, eminent domain, police power, and escheat. The Dictionary of Real Estate Appraisal (5th ed., 2010).

Thus, this article discusses the usual selling price of the fee simple interest in an owner-occupied large free standing store real property, unaffected by the person who owns or uses the property.

II.    Big Box Stores Are All Built To Suit And Not Built To Thereafter Be Sold Or Leased.

The above section of this article addressed the legal principles governing the TCV of big box stores and other types of property. This section addresses ways in which big box stores are factually unlike most property types. Big boxes are all built to suit or custom built for a specific retailer’s business. They are either constructed by (1) a retailer or (2) for a retailer pursuant to a pre-construction contract whereby the retailer agrees to lease the property after construction under terms that allow the contractor to recover its costs and profit. Unlike many property types (apartment complexes, shopping centers, warehouses, office buildings, houses, etc.), big box stores are never built for the purpose of selling or leasing after construction is completed.

Although this gets us ahead of the story, the question should be asked why, unlike many other property types, are big box stores not built to thereafter be sold or leased. The answer is quite simple. Big box retail stores are custom built to accommodate a particular user’s image and marketing strategies. For reasons discussed below, no one could reasonably expect to profit from custom construction of a big box store and thereafter selling or leasing it in the market.

Although an existing big box store is most often clearly suitable for retail use by another retailer, the market tells us a buyer of the fee simple interest in an existing big box store, at a minimum, is going to make substantial modifications to the property. One not familiar with sales of fee simple interests in big box stores will ask why after sale of the fee simple interest in a big box store are big box store buildings either demolished or substantially modified when the building was suitable, as is, for retail use. The answer is that each big box store retailer has its own business image and desired store layout and design - façade, flooring, lighting, location of restrooms, etc. Each big box retailer wants all its stores to look alike and not like another retailer’s stores.

In short, the market tells us that when the fee simple interest in an existing big box store is sold or leased, one of two things almost always happens - (1) the building is demolished or (2) the building is substantially modified.

III. Valuation Of The Fee Simple Interest

Borrowing a quotation from the late William Kinnard, a professor, author, and well-known real property appraiser, “An appraisal is the logical application of available data to reach a value conclusion.” It is useful to keep this truism in mind when valuing property, including the fee simple interest in a big box store property.

A.    Sales Comparison Approach.

In valuing the fee simple interest of a big box store by the sales comparison approach, ideal comparable sales are fee simple sales of similar properties, i.e. sales of the same interest in property as the interest in the big box store being valued.

The Michigan Tax Tribunal has consistently used comparable fee simple sales of properties that were vacant and available when valuing a subject big box store. See Home Depot USA, Inc. v. Twp. of Breitung, MTT Docket No 366428 (2012), affirmed by the Michigan Court of Appeals in an unpublished opinion, Home Depot USA, Inc., v. Twp. of Breitung, Michigan Court of Appeals Docket No. 314301, (April 22, 2014) (“Petitioner’s selected comparables were vacant and available at the time of sale. The Tribunal finds that these sales best represent the fee simple interest in the subject property. Vacant and available at the time of sale is not an alien term: an appraiser’s analysis of exchange value must account for this eventuality. Not all properties transition instantaneously from seller to buyer like a light switch. Moreover, vacant and available for sale does not automatically present a negative connotation.”) (Emphasis added.)

As the Michigan Court of Appeals further explained:

The tribunal properly valued the properties by valuing the fee simple interest of the properties as if they were vacant and available. By comparing the subject properties to similar big box retail properties that were vacant and available, with various adjustments made to compensate for differences between the properties, Allen [taxpayer’s appraiser] was able to determine what the fair market value would be of the subject properties, if they were to be sold in a private sale, as required by MCL 211.27(1). Therefore, Allen’s sales-comparison approach properly valued the TCV of the fee simple interest of the subject properties.

Home Depot USA, Inc., v. Twp. of Breitung, unpublished opinion per curiam of the Court of Appeals, issued April 22, 2014 (Docket No. 314301).

Below are some common issues and errors in concluding to the TCV of the fee simple interest in big box stores using the sales comparison approach:

1.     Leased Fee Sales. A leased fee comparable may not be a valid indicator of a fee simple interest. Income producing real estate is often subject to an existing lease or leases encumbering the title. By definition, the owner of real property that is subject to a lease no longer controls the complete bundle of rights, i.e., the fee simple estate. The price paid for a leased fee sale is a function of the contract rent, the credit worthiness of the tenant, and the remaining years on the lease. If the sale of a leased property is to be used as a comparable sale in the valuation of the fee simple interest in another property, the comparable sale can only be used if reasonable and supportable market adjustments for the differences in rights can be made. The Appraisal of Real Estate, p. 323 (13th ed.); p. 406 (14th ed).

2.     Sale - Leasebacks. Sale/Leasebacks are typically financing transactions and always transactions between related parties, i.e. in addition to seller and buyer, the parties are tenant and landlord to each other. Thus, a price paid for a sale/leaseback comparable sale is typically based upon a financial transaction not reflective of the fee simple interest value and is always a transaction between related parties.

3.     Expenditures after sale. Misapplication of reimaging costs as “expenditures made immediately after purchase” results from failure to make a logical application of available data.

a.     It is appropriate to adjust a comparable sale price for expenditures that “have to be made” when such expenditures do not have to be made for the subject property

b.     It is not appropriate to adjust for expenditures made after the sale to “reimage” or customize the big box store for the buyer’s specific business purposes. An adjustment for a buyer’s expenditures after sale are erroneously included when the subject has the same or similar physical features and condition because both the comparable sale and the subject would typically be modified to satisfy the buyer’s business plan and image.

4.     Zoning and Deed Restrictions. Real property in Michigan is restricted in use by zoning. Other means of restricting a property’s use also exist. One is deed restrictions. A deed restriction, like a zoning restriction, may have a negative effect on a property’s value. However, like a zoning restriction, a deed restriction may not affect a property’s value. Where a deed restriction exists on a comparable sale property, it is appropriate to determine if the restriction caused a diminution in price when considering using the sale as a comparable sale to value a subject big box store property. However, typically when big box stores sell with a deed restriction, the restriction is negotiated as part of the sale so as to not affect the buyer’s intended use of the property and does not affect the sale price for the property.

5.     Highest and Best Use Issues. The highest and best use (“HBU”) of an existing owner-occupied big box store is likely going to be for retail use. In valuing big box store real property by the sales comparison approach, ideally each improved comparable sale would have the same or a similar HBU as the improved subject property. The Appraisal of Real Estate, p. 43 (14th ed. 2013). A big box store comparable sale not purchased for the subject’s same or similar HBU (retail) should be investigated to determine what evidence it provides about the value of the subject big box store property.

For example, if the improved comparable sale is physically comparable and suitable for retail use but the property sells for a use other than retail, the sold property’s HBU (as reflected by the sale) may not be even similar to subject’s HBU - retail. When that sale is used as a comparable sale without adjustment for this fact (but appropriate other adjustments), its use may result in overvaluation (but not an undervaluation) of the subject. If the comparable sale property suitable for retail use was offered for sale in the market and not bought for retail use, then the comparable property’s selling price for retail use (the subject property’s HBU) would have been equal to or less than its selling price for some other use - this is simply a logical application of available data.

B.    The Income Approach.

The most contested issue involving the valuation of the fee simple interest in big box stores by the income approach is typically the determination of market rent. To the extent the Tribunal has relied on the income approach to value these properties, it has considered only arms length transactions between unrelated parties resulting in agreed upon rent for an existing building not rent for a non-existent store to be built to a tenant’s specifications. The subject of this article is existing big box stores and not stores to be built. Rental terms from build-to-suit leases and sale/leaseback transactions would not reflect market rent (except by accident). Similarly, landlord provided tenant improvements or tenant improvement allowances so the tenant can reimage or reconstruct space for its business purposes must be adjusted from stated rent for a rent comparable so that the concluded market rent is for the subject property as is (without additional rent that may be realizable by the landlord for providing for more than the subject property, e.g. a landlord provided tenant improvement allowance).

C.    The Cost Approach.

1.             The Cost Approach to value big box store properties is generally agreed to by appraisers to be inapplicable due to the fact that it is not used by buyers and sellers and because of issues relating to the quantification of total depreciation. If used, then replacement cost is the basis from which all depreciation must be deducted. Quantifying this depreciation including, proper functional obsolescence and external (economic) obsolescence determinations, typically must be done through information obtained through comparable sales and/or income approach:

2.             Comparable Sales can be used to derive market extracted depreciation.

3.             Income deficiency or capitalization of rent loss (the difference between rent at market and the rent required to justify investment based on cost new) can also be used.

Big box store real property TCVs are adversely impacted by substantial obsolescence. The question has been asked why do the fee simple interests in big box store properties sell for so little as a % of cost new? There are multiple explanations for this market fact which are generally applicable regardless of the property’s age:

a.         All freestanding big box stores are custom built for the original owner’s business purposes and business model and the modified cost for a buyer’s business model/image is expensive.

b.         Upon sale, at a minimum, there is modification for reimaging (when the building is not demolished). (Sometimes the modification is for a use other than retail.)

c.         Fast growing e-commerce sales - In general, even big box retailers are not building new stores and when they are building, they are generally constructing smaller stores.

Significantly, the loss in value attributable to these obsolescence factors further explains why build-to-suit lease rental rates will typically be at rental rates above the market rental rate for an existing big box store property.

IV. Summary

In conclusion, the logical application of available data is required to answer the question: As of the valuation date, what is the usual selling price that would be paid for the fee simple interest in the subject existing big box store property?

The usual selling price is most appropriately determined from fee simple interest sales of similar existing properties and through market rent based on rents agreed to for other similar existing properties. The cost approach is generally not used. But when it is used, it would not likely provide a reliable result unless sales and/or income approaches to value are used to account for total depreciation.

districts in Ohio and Pennsylvania can come in and file their own tax appeal to raise the value of a given property." Landlords must diligently review property taxes yearly, looking at assessments based on current marketplace ' conditions, Shapiro says. "My clients are fighting assessments," he said, "because assessors were ignoring the function obsolescence of their properties, which in some cases meant a 50 percent reduction in value."

 

 

 

 

shaprio150

Michael Shapiro is of counsel at the 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..

 

Jul
08

Custom-Built Carrots: Attracting Growth Firms Calls for Smart Incentives

In the wake of the Great Recession, government initiatives to promote economic growth have varied widely across the nation. Some states targeted manufacturers, while others focused on technology companies and other high-impact, knowledge-based firms. A spirited debate has emerged on the role of economic incentives in these efforts.

Historically, Southern states have targeted manufacturers rather than knowledge-based companies as the engines of economic growth by offering tax incentives aimed at reducing costs. Manufacturers typically make substantial upfront capital investments and create large numbers of jobs. These companies quickly generate property tax revenue for the public coffers.

Knowledge-based technology companies and startups, however, seldom make hefty initial capital investments, nor do they create large numbers of jobs right away. Rather, these employers tend to offer fewer, but higher-paying, jobs that have a greater impact on the economy than an equivalent number of manufacturing positions. As a result, traditional tax breaks linked to job numbers and capital investment don’t appeal to knowledge-based companies, particularly startups that are not yet generating revenue.

The real target should be a category that is best characterized as "growth" companies. Regardless of sector, these companies include startups as well as more established companies that are increasing revenue at a high rate.

Most companies measure success by revenue and profit growth, not by numbers of employees, capital investment outlays or numbers of patents. One study notes that growth firms tend to be eight years old or less and most economists agree that startups will create the vast majority of future U.S. jobs.

Recent statistics suggest a one-size-fits-all approach to economic incentives may not be best. In May, the nation’s unemployment rate fell to a seven-year low of 5.4 percent; however, job growth during the past few years has been remarkably uneven. Fourteen states have rebounded strongly, with employment increasing 10 percent or more from Great Recession lows. Top performers include Texas and Utah, where unemployment has risen more than 15 percent, and California and Colorado, where employment is up more than 13 percent. Knowledge-based jobs are a critical component to employment growth in these states.

In contrast, total employment in 10 primarily industrial states has grown just 5 percent or less from Great Recession lows.

Cutting Costs, Growing Jobs

Nevertheless, manufacturing jobs have been an important component of the recovery. Some states that have enticed manufacturers by offering lower production costs have been among the leaders in the comeback. For example, employment increased about 11 percent in South Carolina, 10.5 percent in Georgia, and 9.9 percent in North Carolina. These states all created an attractive business environment in part by taking steps to cut costs, such as taxes on capital investment.

One of South Carolina’s main incentives has been a fee-in-lieu-of-taxes agreement (FILOT), which targets property taxes. A participating company negotiates the agreement with the county where the company is locating or expanding its facility.

Generally, a FILOT agreement enables companies investing at least $2.5 million in a new facility or an expansion over a five-year period to cut their property taxes by about 40 percent annually. A FILOT typically lasts for a set term of 20 to 30 years.

To calculate property taxes, South Carolina calculates uses according to the following formula: property value x assessment ratio x millage (or tax rate) = tax. A FILOT can reduce the assessment ratio of a manufacturing facility from 10.5 percent to 6 percent, and sometimes to as low as 4 percent.

FILOTs may also set the millage rate for the duration of the agreement or modify millage every five years. Any personal property subject to the FILOT depreciates. The approach to assessment is similarly variable. The FILOT agreement either sets the property’s value at cost for the agreement’s entire term or permits an appraisal every five years. That provision offers an opportunity to revisit the property’s value even during the life of the FILOT.

While clearly attractive to a manufacturer, a FILOT is less appealing to knowledge-based and technology firms, since these companies are unlikely to make substantial initial capital investments.

Structuring incentives for knowledge-based firms poses unique challenges. These employers invest significantly in non-tangible intellectual property and hire highly skilled, highly paid employees. Income tax credits can be attractive if those companies are making a profit, but those credits have little appeal for a startup that is losing money while the market determines whether the company’s product is attractive.

Economic development cannot focus on manufacturing to the exclusion of knowledge based jobs. In his book The New Geography of Jobs, Enrico Moretti notes that each new high-tech job creates five additional jobs out-side the high-tech sector. He argues that the “innovation” sector has a disproportionately larger multiplier effect than manufacturing. That means one of the best ways for a state to generate jobs for less-skilled workers is to attract technology companies that hire highly skilled employees.

Attracting knowledge-based companies requires creation of the critical mass of firms and workers needed to sustain a truly competitive, often self-sustaining, high-tech ecosystem. That ecosystem, in turn, re-quires a landscape that is culturally vibrant, economically robust and entrepreneurial. These qualities are essential to attracting, engaging and retaining the young talent that contributes so heavily to the knowledge-based economy.

Innovative Manufacturing

In the 21st century, innovation isn’t restricted to knowledge-based companies. Manufacturers must also innovate to expand revenues and profits and to respond to changing opportunities. The recovery from the Great Recession has shown that states must look beyond conventional incentives and tailor their strategies to the competitive needs of the companies that are investing capital and creating jobs.

Smart companies, economic development officials and policymakers should focus on growing revenues and profits, not incentives. Despite the differences between the manufacturing and knowledge-based sectors, their workforces are central to both. With that in mind, employers should strive to build the innovative, flexible and adaptable workforce that is a key to growth.

All too often, however, conventional incentives and development strategies fail to address these concerns. Physical infrastructure does not attract and retain employees; opportunity does. Smart economic development is about increasing income for both companies and workers and encouraging innovation. Smart incentives should do the same.

ellison mMorris Ellison is a partner in the Charleston, S.C., office of the law firm Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice LLP. The firm is the South Carolina member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys. Morris Ellison can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Jun
30

Retail Property Tax Valuation Debate Heats Up in Hoosier State

Indiana has become the latest battleground in the debate over how assessors should value retail real estate and other commercial properties for property tax purposes. The debate’s conclusion will likely affect owners of retail, office and even industrial properties in Indiana, and may affect taxpayers grappling with similar issues in other states.

At the heart of the debate is the question of what assessors should value under Indiana’s market value-in-use standard. Though that term can seem somewhat puzzling, the Indiana Supreme Court has stated that any valuation standard must be based on objective data while also protecting Indiana taxpayers who choose to use their properties at something less than full market potential.

How is market value in-use different from market value? In many if not most situations, they are identical. Where a property is being used for its highest and best use, the property’s market value-in-use will be the same as its market value.

Because a property can be used for something less than its highest and best use, however, its market value-in-use may be lower than its market value. This is the case in the example of agricultural land surrounded by commercial development.

A property cannot be used for something greater than its highest and best use, however; by definition, nothing is higher or better than the highest and best use. Accordingly, a property’s market value-in-use cannot exceed its market value.

Importantly, market value-in-use does not mean the value to the individual user. This distinction may seem like mere semantics, but how the state defines market value-in-use affects many commercial taxpayers. A series of Indiana cases show why.

Since at least 2010, when the Indiana Tax Court issued a pair of decisions addressing the meaning of market value-in-use, Indiana has recognized that market value-in-use as determined by objectively verifiable market data, is the value of a property for its use, not the value of its use to the particular user.

Indiana courts also recognize that in markets where both buyers and sellers frequently exchange and use properties for the same general purpose, a sale often indicates value. The Indiana Board of Tax Review has affirmed and applied these rulings in subsequent cases, including a pair of decisions issued in December 2014 involving big-box retail stores.

These decisions followed longstanding precedent from the Indiana’s Tax Court and kept Indiana in line with the overwhelming majority of other states that have considered the question. Had the board instead agreed with the assessors’ interpretation of market value-in-use as being the value of the use, it would potentially have created a number of anomalous outcomes, including similar properties being assessed differently based on the property owners’ characteristics and not on the properties’ characteristics.

Following the board’s decisions, local governments petitioned the Indiana legislature to change the valuation standard for commercial properties. After a heated debate, legislators left the market value-in-use standard unchanged but amended the property tax statute to modify the evidence available to prove a property’s value, based on the facts of the case.

It is too early to know the full ramifications of the new statute. Assessors’ repeated attacks on the market value-in-use standard, however, will produce one certain result, Taxpayers that own property in Indiana or are considering doing business there will face increasing uncertainty. For that reason, taxpayers must monitor their assessments to ensure fairness as the debate continues.

paul Ben Blair jpgStephen Paul is a partner and Benjamin Blair is an associate in the Indianapolis office of the law firm of Faegre Baker Daniels, LLP, the Indiana and Iowa member of American Property Tax Counsel. They can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..  The views expressed here are the authors' own.

American Property Tax Counsel

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