01STOCK_JANESVILLE_CITYHALL03

JANESVILLE

The curtain might be falling on the dark-store legal theory in Wisconsin, but it’s possible big-box retailers will find another method to reduce their property tax assessments, a Janesville official said.

Dark-store lawsuits returned to headlines earlier this week after Gov. Tony Evers said he planned to outlaw the legal strategy in his first state budget. Often used by large retail corporations, dark-store lawsuits compare fully operational businesses to vacant buildings of similar size in an effort to reduce their valuations.

Janesville and other municipalities have lobbied the state Legislature to prohibit the dark-store strategy, but bipartisan bills to do so died on the Capitol floor. Advisory referendums to ban use of the strategy passed overwhelmingly across the state in November.

Although City Assessor Michelle Laube is “cautiously optimistic” the Legislature will forbid dark-store lawsuits, companies might still find ways to reduce their tax bills, she said.

“They can’t use the comps of the vacant dark stores, but what are the comps they’re going to give us now? Or maybe they will go away. I don’t know,” Laube said.

“That’s our hope, but we won’t know until after the legislation is passed and in effect. We’ll see where things go from there. I wish I had the crystal ball.”

Municipalities typically don’t have the financial or legal resources to compete with corporate attorneys, which often leads to settlements. When one business’s assessment falls, other taxpayers must cover the difference to meet the tax levy, Laube said.

In August, Laube told The Gazette that the average Janesville home could see a tax bill increase of $26 if 11 pending assessment appeals were successful. The city considered three of those—coming from Woodman’s, Walmart and Sam’s Club—to be dark-store lawsuits.

The city council Monday night will consider approving two payments to Woodman’s totaling more than $90,000. Monday’s meeting will finish with a closed session to discuss the city’s strategy in its pending cases with Walmart and Sam’s Club.

Laube declined to comment specifically on any of those three cases.

Woodman’s, 2819 N. Lexington Drive, was assessed at $15.9 million in both 2017 and 2018. A private appraisal that did not assess the gas station or car wash building valued Woodman’s at $8.8 million, according to a city memo.

The city agreed to reduce the Woodman’s assessment to $14.2 million. Janesville will pay roughly $32,000 of the accompanying $90,000 tax refund; the rest will come from other local taxing entities such as the county and school district, according to the memo.

Even if Evers enacted legislation to ban dark-store lawsuits, it wouldn’t affect Janesville’s pending cases, Laube said.

The city might see more property assessment appeals—not necessarily related to the dark-store strategy—this summer from homeowners and small businesses. That’s because the city is undergoing a full revaluation of all commercial and residential properties.

Change notices are scheduled to be mailed in May.

Laube estimated the city will send out 26,000 change notices in 2019 instead of the typical 3,000 per year because every property is getting checked.

GazetteXtra.com does not condone or review every comment. Read more in our Commenter Policy Agreement

  • Keep it clean. Comments that are obscene, vulgar or sexually oriented will be removed. Creative spelling of such terms or implied use of such language is banned, also.
  • Don't threaten to hurt or kill anyone.
  • Be nice. No racism, sexism or any other sort of -ism that degrades another person.
  • Harassing comments. If you are the subject of a harassing comment or personal attack by another user, do not respond in-kind. Use the "Report comment abuse" link below to report offensive comments.
  • Share what you know. Give us your eyewitness accounts, background, observations and history.
  • Do not libel anyone. Libel is writing something false about someone that damages that person's reputation.
  • Ask questions. What more do you want to know about the story?
  • Stay focused. Keep on the story's topic.
  • Help us get it right. If you spot a factual error or misspelling, email newsroom@gazettextra.com or call 1-800-362-6712.
  • Remember, this is our site. We set the rules, and we reserve the right to remove any comments that we deem inappropriate.

Report comment abuse