Unfair Taxation? Governments Need to Fix the Right Problem
- Mar 11, 2019
Recently, The New York Times published an article on property taxes imposed on retailers under the headline “As Big Retailers Seek to Cut Their Tax Bills, Towns Bear the Brunt.” This and similar articles question the fairness of how retailers have reduced their tax bills by using sales of unoccupied stores as comparable transactions to establish the assessed value for an occupied store.
The local government has cried foul, and the article concentrates on the perceived end result―lost revenue for government coffers.
What is missing from the article is basic tax law, which holds that all taxpayers in a given class must be taxed uniformly. Thus, the series of bad decisions that led local government to overtax retailers made communities dependent on inflated revenue. The initial mistake many assessors made was to seize upon sales prices associated with leased retail stores without critically examining the transactions.
Investors, and taxpayers in general, should be wary when taxing authorities single out properties to be assessed in a method that is inconsistent with the treatment of other taxpayers in the same class.
Fundamentals of fairness
Most state constitutions specify that taxes must be uniformly assessed, which requires assessors to follow the same rules for all taxpayers within a class. At the most simplistic level, the rules of the game must be consistently applied to all and not changed to affect the outcome.
To understand how equally applied rules achieve fair taxation of property, bear in mind this fundamental truth: The assessor’s goal is to measure the value of real estate only. Taxing entities then use that value to determine the tax. A lack of well-thought-out rules and procedures created the problem of non-uniform assessment.
Many states don’t even have a clear definition of what they are trying to measure. States use terms such as “true value” or “true market value” without any further defining language. For most people, fair value simply means what a home would sell for in an open-market transaction. But commercial real estate is not that simple and requires clear definitions applied uniformly to all taxpayers.
Commercial property values are influenced by many factors unrelated to real estate. Consider how, under various circumstances, the same property might sell for wildly different values: An owner-occupied property will sell based on what the market will pay for the building once it is vacant, either for the new owner to occupy or as an investment for the buyer to lease-out at market terms.
The same property, were it leased at an above-market rental rate or to a highly credit-worthy tenant, functions much like a bond and will sell based on a market capitalization rate and for a greater price than the owner-occupied property.
Finally, the same property leased with long-term, below-market lease terms or a less credit-worthy tenant might sell for less than the owner-occupied price or the above-market-leased example. In each scenario, the same property sells for different amounts. Without a clear set of guidelines, establishing value based on sales price would be inconsistent even for a single property, much less an entire class.
Of the three scenarios, the only method that can be replicated consistently and applied to owners of both leased and owner-occupied real estate alike is that of the owner-occupied property. Owner-occupied interest is the unencumbered, fee-simple interest, which makes it the measuring stick common to all taxpayers. All other interests are influenced by non-real-estate factors such as lease terms or business value.
Adding to the confusion is the ever-changing commercial real estate sector, where market data is full of sales that include non-real-estate influences. The single-tenant market, for example, has evolved from almost exclusively retailer occupancy to include specialty uses and even nursing homes and hospitals.
The assessment goal should be to measure the real estate value alone, ensuring that all taxpayers are taxed with the same measuring stick, but confusion comes in when the sales alone don’t indicate real estate value. Leased sales indicate the value of the real estate along with the tenant’s credit-worthiness, the life of the lease and a host of other factors that can include enterprise zones and outside influences.
The court cases that are clarifying the methodology and the measuring stick appear to reduce assessments, when they are actually correcting the assessments and requiring assessors to value the same interests for all taxpayers. Defining terms and ensuring rule uniformity protects all taxpayers. There is no foul to be called and the losses affecting some local governments are the result of their own mistakes.
The cure is simple, but the short-term pain for community coffers is significant. States must establish clear definitions and guidelines around property rights so that assessors can value all real estate without encumbrances. Local governments cannot rely on a single taxpayer subset to carry the tax burden.
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.