A fundamental problem plaguing the property tax system is its reliance on the government’s opinion of a property’s taxable value. Taxes on income or retail sales reflect hard numbers; real estate assessment produces the only tax in which the government guesses at a fair amount for the taxpayer to pay.
Assessors’ estimates of taxable property value create ambiguity and public scrutiny not found in other taxes, and incorrect assessments can lead to fiscal shortfalls that viciously pit taxing authorities against taxpayers seeking to correct those valuations. Worse yet, the longer a tax appeal takes to reach its conclusion, the worse the outcome for both the taxpayer and government. Paradoxically, swift correction of assessment roll protects the tax authority as well as the taxpayer.
As an example, Utah daily newspaper Desert News reported in December 2019 that, due to a clerical error, Wasatch County tax rolls recorded a market-rate value of $987 million for a 1,570-square-foot home built in 1978. The value should have been $302,000. The Wasatch County assessor said the error caused a countywide overvaluation of more than $6 million and created a deficit in five various county taxing jurisdictions, according to the county assessor. The Wasatch County School District had already budgeted nearly $4.4 million, which it was unable to collect.
How does an overvaluation error cause taxing districts to lose money? In many, if not most jurisdictions, the tax rate is determined in part by the overall assessment in the district as well as the budget and levies passed. Typically, there is a somewhat complex formula that turns on the various taxing districts, safeguards and anti-windfall provisions.
Simply stated, tax rates are a result of the budget divided by the overall assessment in the district. A $1 million budget based on a $100 million assessment would require a 1 percent tax rate to collect the budgeted revenue. If the assessment is corrected after the tax rate is set, however, then not all the revenue will be collected and the district will incur a fiscal shortfall.
The sooner a commercial property assessment is corrected the healthier it is for all involved. In the Utah example, had the error been corrected prior to the tax rate being set there would have been no impact on the taxpayer, the school or any of the taxing authorities.
Fairness for the common good
Most state tax systems are flawed and provide inadequate safeguards for taxpayers—if the tax systems were designed better, there would be less need for tax counsel. By understanding the workings of the property tax system, however, taxpayers can help maintain their own fiscal health as well as help to maintain the community’s fiscal well being.
As with all negotiations, it is important to understand the opponent’s motivations. Although residential tax assessment typically is the largest pool of overall assessment, taxing authorities know that commercial properties individually can have the greatest impact on a system when they are improperly assessed, to the detriment of schools and taxpayers. That makes it important to act as quickly as possible in the event of an improper assessment. And, importantly, resolutions that minimize impacts to the government can maximize the benefit to the taxpayer.
A lack of clear statutory definitions, political tax shifting or a simple error can cause a breakdown in the tax system. In Johnson County, Kan., the assessor raised the assessments on all big box retail stores, in some cases by over 100 percent. Recently, the Kansas State Board of Tax Appeals found those assessments to be excessive. The board reduced taxable values in several of the lead cases back to original levels, and the excessive assessment caused a shortfall.
The Cook County, Ill., assessor has been in the news for raising assessments on commercial real estate in many cases by more than 100 percent. If those assessments are found to be excessive, it could be detrimental for the tax authorities and taxpayers alike. In Cook County, the assessor has stated that the increase is in response to prior underassessment.
Seek uniformity, clarity
With tremendous swings in assessment and taxes, how can taxpayers and assessors ensure a fair system? Uniform standards and measurements are the answer.
Like the income tax code, the property tax code is criticized for being confusing and overly wordy. To achieve greater equity and predictability, clarity is key. Defined measures of assessed value and standards to ensure uniform assessment results will help create transparency and ensure fundamental fairness between neighbors and competitors, so that no one has an advantage nor a disadvantage.
All taxpayers must be subject to the same measurement. For instance, a government cannot apply an income tax as a tax on gross income for one taxpayer and on net income for another. Likewise, one taxpayer should not be taxed on the value of a property that is available for sale or lease, and another owner taxed based on the value of its property with a tenant in place. Because tax law under most state constitutions must be applied uniformly, one set of rules must be established for all, and what is being taxed should be clearly defined.
Tax laws often include phrases like “true cash value” and “fair value.” To be clear, the only measure of taxable value common to all property types is the fee simple, unencumbered value. The value of a property that is measured notwithstanding the current occupant or tenant is not necessarily the price that was paid for the property; it could be higher or lower. And because this concept is difficult for many taxpayers and assessors to understand, there needs to be a second check on the system; that safeguard is taxpayers’ right to challenge their assessment based on their neighbors’ and competitors’ assessments.
To protect themselves on complex matters, it is often helpful for taxpayers to hire counsel that is intimately familiar with the law, real estate valuation and the local individuals with whom the taxpayer will be negotiating. To reduce the need for counsel, get involved with trade groups and state chambers of commerce, which can aid in correcting the tax system.
Uniform measurements of assessment, the ability to challenge the uniformity of results, and swift resolutions combine to create fairness and stability, which in turn enhance the fiscal health of both taxpayers and tax districts.
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 [email protected]