Here we have yet another large corporation using their boardroom of lawyers to lower their property taxes...which means you'll be paying more.
In a long-building tax avoidance scheme, big businesses and their lawyers, with the help of malleable appraisers and tax representatives, are turning the appraisal profession on its head.
Some basic economic principles are imbued in property appraisal. Substitution is the idea that a comparable must not only be similar physically, but also economically (similar rents, expenses, etc.).
Typically the details and length of the lease are common factors a buyer would consider when contemplating the purchase of an income-producing property. The appraisal profession typically considers the rents a property can charge an outcome of the location - the land. Now, according to the lawyers, the value is due to goodwill and other intangibles...and, conveniently, most of these aren't taxable.
Take Walgreens, a court recently ruled that sales of Walgreens weren't good comparables or good indicators of value for ... Walgreens. Typical retail, a closed Blockbuster store, and mom-and-pop stores were deemed more comparable.
The City of Milwaukee recently settled a property tax dispute, dating back to 2010, with Walgreens, on 18 of their stores. The settlement was for $3.7 million dollars.
Opinions in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on the topic (incorrect grammar and all) were things like: "Is it any wonder why citizens and businesses want to get out of the City?" or "This should be good news for mayor Berrett now he has another excuse for not fixing the pot holes on almost every street in the city. Waite for him to try increasing the wheel tax again. Which reminds me is he spending any of the wheel tax money on streets."
So, giving a business a refund of $3.7 million is a reason for a business to go away? Not to mention, the $3.7 million Walgreens is not paying, now has to be paid by other citizens. When corporations avoid paying their fair share, everyone else has to pick up the slack.
Much of what this case hinges on is that fact that Walgreens claim the leases they have are not market rate and actual sales of other Walgreens are also not comparable market transactions.
On the transfer returns (which names the buyer and seller; and separates real estate, equipment and business value) for the Walgreens sales, the Property owners claimed the total sale prices were for the real estate. Plus, in their actual leases on these properties, they specifically state these are real leases and not financing instruments. [Transfer returns and court transcripts, which contain this, are public information.]
Yet, in court they have claimed just the opposite. And the judge agreed in a City of Madison v. Walgreens court case. Although, if we're going to accept these revelations as true, this means that Walgreens has submitted falsified transfer returns and entered into bogus contractual leases.
Much of how a property's value is declared is based on accounting - wherever they can shift the supposed value to lower their taxes the most (based on things like depreciation, etc.), that's where they'll enter it in the ledger. A Walgreens is built to be a Walgreens, nothing else. Just as other special purpose properties (like gas stations, car washes, etc.) are built for a specific use. The builder/owner does this because they expect a certain return on their investment at that specific site.
Walgreens feels more appropriate comparable properties, to establish the value of their properties, are vacant buildings and and other neighborhood establishments.
This is like saying to find out what my Chevy Camaro is worth I should look at what Ford Taurus' are selling for. They're both cars, right?
The court completely ignores the concept of substitution. A property is only comparable if a buyer would actually consider it as an alternative investment. A vacant store does not have the same marketability and value as a store with a 25-year lease.
If a current owner of a Walgreens store were to sell, he/she would base the sales price on what the income stream is worth - how much he/she gets from the leases. Which is why most Walgreens sell at twice what Walgreens are claiming they are worth in court.
This whole fiasco ignores the general market that is the triple-net lease, investment grade properties. These are properties under long-term leases (usually 25 years) where the tenants pay the expenses. Thus vacancy (a typical deduction from the cash flow) is non-existent for the property owner. And, expenses are minimal to non-existent since they are the responsibility of the tenant. For these reasons, the standard Walgreens drug store sells for $467 per square foot at a 5.6% capitalization rate. The minimum typical footprint of a Walgreens is 12,000 square feet; this equates to a $5,604,000 value (or a rental rate of roughly $26 per square foot).
Even though the market evidence indicates this is what typical investors buy and sell these properties for, Walgreens astonishingly claims the stores are only worth half that.
All of these factors corroborated the City's assessments on the Walgreens' properties. Yet, for some inexplicable reason, the judge bought Walgreens' self-interested and contradictory argument and decided rather than comparing apples to apples, one should compare apples and rotten apples. And, because of this, my fellow taxpayers, you will pay more since Walgreens is paying less.
And taxpayers should be upset over this (and start complaining to their city attorney office to fight back against this shakedown) because the
And, for big boxes (like Meijer, Target, Walmart, Lowes), some courts have decided the best comparable indicators of value are vacant, or "dark", stores. Somehow, a building that is closed and out of business is a viable alternative investment to an successfully operating one.
Olivia LaVecchia has more of the gruesome details:
Figuring out the value of a property can be a complicated business. In Michigan, town and county assessors typically use a property’s construction costs, minus depreciation, as a primary metric to determine its fair market value; taxable value is half that amount. Property owners sometimes prefer, instead, to use the sale prices of comparable properties. This was the approach that Lowe’s took—with a catch. Lowe’s looked at the definition of the word “comparable,” and decided to stretch it. It said that, because big-box stores are designed to be functionally obsolescent, comparable stores are those that have been closed and are sitting empty—the “dark stores” behind this method’s name...
It’s an established part of the big-box retail model that the boxes themselves be custom-built, cheaply constructed, and disposable. If retailers decide that they need a bigger space, it’s cheaper for them to leave the old one behind and build a new one. When Walmart, for instance, opened its wave of new, twice-the-size Supercenters across the country in 2007, it left hundreds of vacant stores behind it. This means that new, successful stores like the Marquette Lowe’s are rarely the locations that are up for sale, and that when big-box stores do come on the market, it’s because they’ve already failed or been abandoned by the retailer that built them. In other words, Lowe’s was saying, it had built a property that, despite generating roughly $30 million in annual sales for the company, had very little value, and because of that, it should get a break in its property taxes...
Despite all of this, cities and towns continue to buy into the myth, sold to them by the mega-retailers themselves, that big-box stores spark economic development. In service of this myth, local and state governments across the country have granted at least $2.6 billion in subsidies to just six large retailers, including $160 million to Walmart and $138 million to Lowe’s, according to another study from Good Jobs First.When these businesses use their clout to avoid taxation, all other taxpayers pay more.
For Further Reading:
For Cities, Big Box Stores Are Becoming Even More Of A Terrible Deal
Multibillion dollar Meijer, Inc. finds another way to screw Michigan cities and kids
Unfair Comparisons? Meijer, other big-box retailers use ‘dark store’ loophole to cut their Michigan property tax bills
Big box stores ringing up property tax discounts
Are big-box retailers getting a tax break at schools’ expense?