Fights over assessments, property tax loom

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Manawa in Waupaca County boasts this motto: "Celebrating small town life."

But, in the looming Capitol brawls over how property is assessed and whether the property tax is a sustainable way to pay for important local services, tiny Manawa (population: 1,300) has become a symbolic Ground Zero.

In one year, Manawa lost 25% of its property value. The annual state Department of Revenue (DOR) report said Manawa's equalized property value - not including personal property - dropped from $86.7 million in 2017 to $65.2 million in 2018.

The biggest drop - from $34.3 million to $14.5 million, or 58% - came in the equalized value of manufacturing property, largely as a result of a years-long fight over how to assess property owned by Sturm Foods.

The expected result of the drop in equalized property values: a projected 12% hike in Manawa's property tax levy. That's more than four times the expected U.S. rate of inflation.

DOR's report documents wide disparities in changing property values across Wisconsin.

Besides the 25% drop in property values in Manawa, for example, there was no change in the value of all Taylor County real property.

But the value of property in booming Kenosha County went up 8% - largely because of a 17% one-year jump in the equalized value of manufacturing property.

DOR's report said equalized property values in Beloit increased 4% in a year - less than the 6% increase for all of Rock County property. The one-year changes in Beloit property values were residential, +5%; commercial, -2%, and manufacturing, +14%.

All this sets up a Capitol fight in January, when the next governor and lawmakers elected on Nov. 6 take oaths of office, on three fronts:

*"Dark store" assessments. Across Wisconsin, large retailers, convenience stores and even motels are suing - and winning - to have their assessments reduced by having them tied to the assessed values of vacant (or "dark") properties. Drug stores like Walgreens have also won related lawsuits, challenging how their stores are assessed.

The Eau Claire Leader-Telegram reported in July that the owners of 11 businesses - including six Kwik Trips, two Menards, one Wal-Mart and a hotel - sued the city, citing the "dark store" argument. They said their $56.8 million in assessments should be reduced to $32.7 million - a 43% cut - and demanded refunds of past property taxes.

If those 11 businesses win, the Leader-Telegram reported, the refunds alone would cost the owner of a home assessed at $150,00 about $18 in a one-time payment, and $7 more each year permanently.

The "dark store" issue was originally raised in the dispute over how to assess Sturm Foods property in Manawa, prompting the Manawa City Council to unanimously adopt this resolution in March 2017:

"The Governor and Legislature [should] protect homeowners and Main Street businesses from having more of the property tax burden shifted to them."

The state's chamber of commerce, Wisconsin Manufacturing & Commerce (WMC), is fighting to preserve what local government officials call the "dark store loophole."

In a statement, WMC said the state Tax Appeals Commission's decision in favor of Sturm Foods had "nothing to do with" the "dark stores" debate.

"Courts and the [Tax Appeals] Commission carefully evaluate taxpayer challenges and are not fooled by the use of inferior or distressed properties to assess quality properties," WMC said.

*Tying local governments' property tax levies to new construction. To control property taxes, state officials have limited future city, town and village property tax levies cities to the value of new construction - new developments minus demolitions.

On his re-election campaign Website, Republican Gov. Scott Walker says these limits have helped homeowners: "Thanks to our bold conservative reforms, property taxes will be lower in 2018 than they were in both 2014 and 2010."

But local government leaders like Jerry Deschane, executive director of the League of Wisconsin Municipalities, says levy limits are "strangling" the ability of local officials to provide critical services.

DOR reported that the one-year statewide growth in new construction was 2%.

But there were wide disparities: New construction in Kenosha County was +3%; there was no net new construction in Manawa.

*Finding options to the property tax as the main source of revenue for local governments.

Mark O'Connell, executive director of the Wisconsin Counties Association, says property taxes are "not sustainable" to pay for critical local services.

As Wisconsin ages and development lags in rural areas and regions not on Interstate highways, O'Connell said, "We're forcing them out of their homes. They can't afford property taxes."

Steven Walters is a senior producer for the nonprofit public affairs channel WisconsinEye. Contact him at stevenscotwalters@gmail.com

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