Another week, another Dark Store defeat

While the Wisconsin Legislature can’t seem to grasp it, members of the State Bar are beginning to get the idea: the Dark Store Loophole is a loser. This week the City of West Bend declared victory over a Dark Store play by Menards. The home improvement chain withdrew three year’s worth of Dark Store-based claims that it was being taxed too much. In a news release, City Administrator Jay Shambeau said the decision proves that his assessors, like many others in Wisconsin who face Dark Store claims, were doing it right all along.

“Our City Assessors take great pride in their work and establish fair and equitable assessed values,” stated City of West Bend Administrator, Jay Shambeau. The cancellation of this lawsuit affirms the fact that the City of West Bend assessments were proper and fair all along.  Shambeau also states, “The residents and property owners in West Bend should find peace in knowing that our city staff work hard to establish uniform and law-based assessments on all property assessments.”

We don’t have the exact numbers involved in this case, but similar claims from big box stores have called for cuts as large as half their tax bill, shifting tens of thousands of dollars in taxes onto homeowners, small independent businesses and manufacturers every year. In addition to shifting the tax burden to others, the cost of defending an assessment decision can easily exceed $50,000, forcing many cities and villages to make the hard choice and agree to a settlement. The Mayor of West Bend, Kraig Sadownikow, is pleased the city stuck to its guns and didn’t negotiate a settlement.

“West Bend has been a leader in combating the dark store theory,” states City of West Bend Mayor Kraig Sadownikow.  “I am proud of our city council and staff for their resistance to buckle to the big box pressure to accept a settlement offer. Any type of settlement would have caused a tax shift to other city property taxpayers. This was unacceptable in my opinion.”

Governor Tony Evers included language in his state budget bill that would have closed the Dark Store and Walgreens loopholes once and for all. On a party-line vote, Republican leaders in the Legislature removed that language from the bill. While the future of Dark Store legislation may be uncertain, the future of dark store arguments winning in Wisconsin court rooms looks even shakier. The good news is that, despite the significant legal costs, cities and villages that have stood up to the tax-shifting strategy have been succeeding lately. If this discourages enterprising tax lawyers for big box stores from using dark store strategies, it’s good news for taxpayers.

Way to go, West Bend!

Another assessment win

If you tell a bank that your property is worth $450 million, chances are you won’t win an argument claiming your property tax assessment of $400 million is too high. That’s one of the morals of this most recent property assessment story. On May 9 the City of Wauwatosa won the largest, most complicated retail property assessment challenges to date. By order of a judge, super-regional Mayfair Mall is worth what the assessor said it’s worth (and probably more), not what 20 less attractive malls are worth.

The Mayfair Mall property tax saga began in 2013 when the city of Wauwatosa pegged the property’s value at $400 million. The city’s data suggested the property was worth about ten-percent more than that amount, but the assessor went with the more conservative figure in part because he didn’t have access to income information that had been repeatedly requested from the owner. The assessment was the same for 2014 and raised by roughly 5-percent for 2015. The real estate investment trust that owned Mayfair sued, claiming the city assessments were in error.

A four-year court battle ensued. A year ago, both sides met in Milwaukee County Circuit Court for a six-week trial. The trial became a dense and complicated contest of competing experts. Milwaukee County Circuit Judge Marshall B. Murray issued his written decision in favor of the city this month. His 34-page written decision carefully details how Wauwatosa Assessors Steve Miner and (later) Shannon Krause repeatedly used correct data, scrupulously-followed the Wisconsin Property Assessment Manual and assigned values that were conservatively-beneath the actual value of the property.

On the other side, the experts hired by Mayfair to justify its claim that the assessment was wrong were repeatedly found to be “inconsistent and not credible” by the judge. In some instances, the judge’s decision points out that the owner’s experts contradicted their own previous work. Mayfair had an appraisal done to finance the mall, putting its value at about $460 million. One of the experts who challenged the $400 million assessment worked for the firm that had done the appraisal. (Just one of the facts that Judge Murray pointed out in his “inconsistent and not credible” finding.)

Although Mayfair’s challenge did not turn on the “dark store” theory directly, the decision is an important element in the ongoing legislative debate. It is unquestionably the largest, most complicated retail assessment challenge in the recent string of property tax decisions. Two of Wisconsin’s best municipal assessors, Miner and Krause, were central figures in assigning the values to the property and the case was defended by expert municipal tax attorneys Amy Seibel and Ryan Braithwaite. The other side brought its legal A-team as well, and both sides relied on leading national experts in assessment and appraisal. The case was as expertly-argued as an assessment case can be…and the municipal side won on all points.

Despite the importance of this win, the fight continues. In Wauwatosa, there are related cases from more recent tax years still under appeal, and this decision may be appealed to a higher court. Wauwatosa Mayor Kathy Ehley has said her city budgets more for assessment-related legal fees annually than it receives in shared revenue payments; more than a quarter of a million per year.

Ironically, the same week Judge Murray rejected Mayfair’s appeal the Wisconsin Legislature’s budget-writing committee rejected a proposal to clarify the law. The Joint Committee on Finance voted 11-3 against League-supported Dark Store language in the state budget. Apparently, legislation that would help Wauwatosa and other Wisconsin municipalities not spend $250,000 per year on legal fees is not “fiscal policy” suitable for a state budget.

Stay tuned.