In an Aug. 5 editorial, The Gazette criticized the city for advocating for the state to put an end to the “dark store” property assessment loophole, which shifts the property tax burden from large corporations to Janesville’s homeowners.

The Gazette’s editorial, which falsely accused our city assessment staff as “behaving nefariously,” comes as a surprise to me. Until this time, The Gazette has taken a stance in favor of closing the dark store loophole. In a March 17, 2016, “Our Views,” The Gazette accurately stated, “When a company gets a lower property tax assessment, the extra burden gets spread to everyone else—smaller businesses and homeowners.” In a Jan. 9, 2017, “Thumbs Down,” The Gazette pointed out, “Lawyers continue to succeed in siphoning taxpayer dollars from municipal coffers through dark store litigation, which has cost Janesville more than $130,000 since 2011.”

This 180-degree change in The Gazette’s stance on this topic has me scratching my head. It does not sound like the stance of local journalists who have a stake in our community.

Since 2011, the city has seen nine assessment appeals using the dark store strategy, which resulted in $541,640 in tax refunds and $187,396 in legal fees at the expense of the remaining taxpayers. The average assessed home in Janesville has experienced an increase of about $22.25 in property taxes annually as a direct result of the dark store loophole.

Changes in property assessments do not impact the amount of tax dollars that the city and other taxing jurisdictions collect. The city does not collect an extra dime in taxes if the dark store loophole is closed. Homeowners are the ones on the losing end of the loophole.

I’ll give you an example of the dark store strategy in action: In 2007, Menards purchased the land to build their new store for $8.1 million. They reported a value of $11.5 million through the city’s building division to construct the store, equating to a total investment of $19.6 million. Their property assessment was set at $17.6 million in 2011 with the last revaluation, which can hardly be classified as “inflating commercial assessments” as alleged by The Gazette. Menards appealed that assessment using the dark store strategy, and their assessment was lowered to $9.5 million. The remaining taxpayers in Janesville will cover Menards’ resulting reduction in taxes.

The accusation that the city’s assessment staff has done something illegal or wrong, and apparently in a willing and knowing manner, is simply incorrect. Since the last revaluation in 2011, Janesville has received a relatively small number of assessment appeals, ranging from three to 278 per year. This number is rather insignificant since the city has in excess of 24,000 parcels.

The city of Janesville stands with 55 other communities in Wisconsin that adopted resolutions in 2017 encouraging the Legislature to close the dark store loophole. This was not done for “nefarious” reasons, but because we believe in fairness in the assessment process. While The Gazette has taken a stance to defend big business, we continue to fight for the homeowners who are paying the added price. Meanwhile, our assessment staff will continue to adhere to the practices and procedures outlined in the Wisconsin Property Assessment Manual, state statutes and case law.

For those Janesville residents that are tired of paying more than their fair share of property taxes so that businesses with large legal fee budgets can have a break, I would encourage you to contact your legislators to request support for legislation that closes this loophole.

Mark Freitag is city manager for Janesville.

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