Voters to weigh in on 'dark store loophole'

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JANESVILLE - As court battles continue over property tax assessments surrounding big box stores, Rock County voters will be able to weigh in on an issue officials say is creating a tax loophole for large corporations.

The so-called "dark store loophole" lets companies assess property taxes on their property using the value of an empty store instead of an operational store. This typically gives stores lower tax assessments, which means businesses save money.

On Nov. 6, voters will be asked whether or not state lawmakers should act to change the process that allows corporations to contest property assessments in this manner.

Voters in neighboring Walworth County, also will consider a similar referendum this fall, as will voters in about 20 other Wisconsin counties, cities and villages.

Rock County Board President Russ Podzilni said the results of the referendum could serve as a way to hold lawmakers accountable if the advisory referendum passes.

"All of a sudden, everyone has to pick up a small fraction from the municipalities and the taxpayers," Podzilni said. "I think they should know the results and they should do what we ask them, so hopefully it would make a difference. How can you ignore that?"

According to the Associated Press, Corydon Fish, the director of tax for Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, argues that the burden is actually placed on businesses.

"They talk about a tax shift to homeowners when there's no such tax shift," he said. "The tax shift is actually from homeowners to businesses."

Fish said figures from the Wisconsin Department of Revenue show that, in recent years, commercial property values have paid a growing share of property taxes while residential property taxes have declined.

Inaction in Madison has stalled all efforts to move legislation forward earlier this year.

As previously reported by the Beloit Daily News, a Democratic amendment was rejected as the State Senate adopted tax code changes.

A bipartisan push to close the loophole was introduced in June of 2017 but the influential, Madison-based Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce didn't support the legislation, and a vote was never taken.

A study commissioned by the League of Wisconsin Municipalities estimated some local governments may need to raise taxes from 4 to 17 percent to absorb future property tax losses from big box retailers.

The report showed of the 11 municipalities studied, valued losses could range from 4 to 14 percent - resulting in a $187 million shift to other taxpayers.

In Beloit, multiple businesses have disputed their property tax assessments, including the Staples Distribution Center, Menards and Woodmans.

The general election will be held Nov. 6, where 22 counties, cities and villages will consider similar ballot questions.

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