Commercial Real Estate and Assessments and Local Government and Appeals and County Government and Taxes and Property taxes and Government & Economic Development

Flood of appeals expected after rushed biz property-tax assessment

March 17, 2008

In 2005, assessors valued the 559-acre Indianapolis Motor Speedway at $34.4 million for property tax purposes. According to the latest figures from the Marion County reassessment, it now has a market value of $170 million.

If the new assessment stands, the track's annual gross property tax bills would increase fivefold, to more than $5 million, assuming tax rates remain constant.

Thousands of other Marion County businesses also would see extraordinary spikes in property values, according to an IBJ analysis of the latest assessment data submitted to the Indiana Department of Local Government Finance.

Gov. Mitch Daniels last year ordered the reassessment, saying he believes Marion County's nine townships historically have done a poor job gauging the market value of commercial and industrial properties, leading their owners to pay unfairly low property taxes.

But IBJ's analysis suggests the new effort also was plagued with problems. Many businesses saw huge jumps in assessments that appear difficult to justify. And officials have continued to revise the data, even though they were supposed to have submitted their final report to the state for approval last month.

"We still have problems," Marion County Assessor Greg Bowes acknowledged. "There was too little time, frankly, to get everything done perfectly."

In October, Portage, Mich.-based Manatron Inc. signed a $1.85 million contract to reassess Marion County's 21,479 commercial and industrial properties. It delivered that data last month to the Marion County Assessor's Office, which gave its report to DLGF in mid-February. Bowes then made further revisions with Manatron's help and submitted a new report March 11.

The latest version assesses the county's commercial and industrial properties at $20.4 billion, with $1.4 billion of the properties owned by tax-exempt organizations, such as hospitals. The $20.4 billion total represents a 41-percent increase from the $14.4 billion total listed for 2005.

One in four Marion County business parcels would see increases in valuation of 100 percent or more, according to Bowes' latest figures. An unlucky 783 commercial and industrial parcels would increase more than 500 percent.

While a handful of business properties saw decreases or no changes in their valuations, nearly 90 percent increased. And much of the rise was concentrated among 2,208 business parcels whose assessments climbed at least $500,000. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway property was one of 178 parcels increasing $5 million or more.

The DLGF now is evaluating Marion County's reassessment. Spokeswoman Mary Jane Michalak said it hopes to complete its review in about a week.

"We're in the final stages of approving it," Michalak said. "It's a top priority ... but at the same time we want to be sure the job is done right."

The state may face a no-win situation. If it quickly certifies the new property values, they're bound to spark a flurry of expensive, time-consuming appeals from outraged business owners. But if it doesn't, property tax bills will be further delayed and taxpayers will have to shoulder the cost of yet another assessment fix.

Either way, business valuation problems could undermine the Legislature's property tax reform efforts, since accurate assessments are the cornerstone of a fair system. At IBJ's deadline, lawmakers appeared poised to approve a reform plan that capped property tax bills at 1 percent of assessed valuation for homeowners, 2 percent for rental property, and 3 percent for business property.

"The county assessor and the DLGF can put any kind of spin on this they want to. But what we've seen is wrong," said Indiana Assessors Association President Becky Williams, who also serves as Franklin Township assessor. "It's a mess."

"I believe we're going to be absolutely buried in appeals," she added. "And it's going to cost this county severely."

Rushed reassessment

Indiana has been trying to transition to assessments tied to actual market values since 1998. It's been an awkward, painful process, as officials attempt to apply "trending" to earlier assessments to come up with new values that reflect current market conditions.

After widespread problems surfaced with assessments released last year, Daniels froze all property tax bills statewide and ordered every Marion County property reassessed. In his reassessment order, Daniels noted that values for nearly three-fourths of Marion County's commercial and industrial properties did not change over a six-year span.

Bowes, a Democrat, directed township assessors to handle the new appraisal of residential property and hired Manatron for the commercial work. Manatron did not respond to IBJ's request for an interview. Bowes said the company asked him to handle all media inquiries about the project.

Williams said Marion County hired Manatron because the only other vendor in the running, Dallas-based Tyler Technologies Inc., demanded at least 18 months to do the job.

"The commissioner of the DLGF should have known they could not do this in four months," she said. "Manatron in their own overview stated a project of this type normally takes 12 to 18 months. I think that pretty much says it all."

Bowes agrees, and said he's expecting an "onslaught" of appeals. But he said extreme pressure from taxpayers and the DLGF forced him to get the project done faster. That's why his office was still making revisions more than five weeks after the state's original reassessment deadline of Feb. 1.

"This is really something that should have taken a year," Bowes said. "But we have teachers and policemen to pay. We need to get this done."

Some of Bowes' and Manatron's late changes have been substantial. For example, their first version of business reassessment left 1,906 properties, mostly from Wayne Township, off the list due to what Bowes called a computer glitch.

The team also changed property values. Between the first and second versions, assessments for more than half the properties increased--602 by $100,000 or more. For example, Bowes' mid-February submission listed the Indianapolis Motor Speedway's assessment at $44.4 million. That's $125.6 million less than in the March 11 submission.

Track spokesman Fred Nation expressed surprise that Marion County had assigned a $170 million property tax value to "a piece of land with a bunch of grandstands around it."

Even so, he said IMS will take a while to decide whether to appeal.

"When we receive official notice, we'll do a thorough review and decide then what our course of action will be," Nation said.

Bowes said he did not know the reasons behind assessment changes for individual properties.

Manatron assigned Marion County's second-largest dollar-value increase to Perry Township's Strawbridge Green Apartments. The assessment for the 190-unit complex jumped from $4 million to $58.6 million.

The complex is one of five apartment properties owned by Lakewood, N.J.-based real estate firm WK Holdings LLC. Julian Blumenthal, WK's chief financial officer, said the new assessment is "obviously a mistake," since his company bought the property for about $5.1 million last year.

"I wish [it were worth $58.6 million]. Maybe if the state wants to give me that much money for it, I'd sell it tomorrow," he said. "This is obviously a ridiculous aberration."

Modern mass appraisal

Township assessors like Williams argue the problems prove the argument they've been making all along. They say property assessment is a local function that they're best trained and equipped to handle.

"Maybe we don't want to turn this over to county assessors and vendors," she said. "You need somebody in the area that knows the property."

But others draw different conclusions from the same results.

Michael Hicks, director of Ball State University's Bureau of Business Research, said computerized mass-appraisal systems have proven accurate for decades. Such systems are far more dependable, he said, than a patchwork of assessors attempting to update prior assessments that might have been flawed in the first place.

"The process in place prior to this is so broken it really begs the question whether the assessors that are there now can ever do a decent job of creating a reasonable assessment," Hicks said. "It's like trying to predict the orbit of a satellite using a slide ruler. My father did it back in the '60s. But it would be stupid to do today."

Real estate developer Stan Evans said some big increases in assessments may be justified, since properties that have been improved would be worth more. He said that until all the assessments are finalized, and the Legislature completes its reforms, it's impossible to come to conclusions.

But in the meantime, real estate deal-making is being affected, said Evans, vice president of commercial real estate for Indianapolis-based Paragon Realty Cos. LLC. He said it's difficult to negotiate sales when potential buyers don't know how much they'll pay in taxes.

"It is likely that deals are being reconsidered or postponed," said Evans, immediate past president of the Indiana Commercial Board of Realtors. "Or decisions are being made to go to places with more certainty than where there is all this uncertainty."

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