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Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Janesville Newspaper Targets Businesses For Challenging Property Assessments

In a recent story, the Janesville Gazette called out eight local retailers by name because they are challenging their property tax assessments with a litigation tactic dubbed the "dark store theory."

The litigation works a two-tiered tax assessment system that in a nutshell, allows for a reduction in assessed value for taxing purposes if the property is no longer generating economic value or incomes. The stores are making the argument that assessed value should be based on physical attributes only, as if the building were empty or abandoned. So far in the courts, it's been a win-some-lose-some battle for the retailers.

Janesville officials jump into the Gazette's story claiming those re-adjusted lower assessments raise the tax burden on everyone else. They're right ...but who is really to blame?

But did you get sucked into that newspaper story? I can't blame you because local officials and their media enablers across Wisconsin, particularly in Janesville, are leaving no stone unturned in their effort to point blame for the avalanche of budget shortfalls expected almost everywhere in Wisconsin, except to point blame where it belongs.

I'd be the first to admit, national corporations including regional retail chains make for easy targets in the divide-and-conquer political arena, but what homeowner would not challenge their own tax assessments if they thought they could save 20, 30 or 40 percent from their annual property tax bill? I know I would providing it is legal. In fact, I would later be under the impression I was knowingly being robbed through the earlier excessively high tax bills. But that's another story.

To be fair, the dark store hustle is just one of at least a dozen state laws and loopholes that whether intentional or not, substantially increases the property tax burden on everyone else, but most on primarily Wisconsin homeowners.

Another gambit that quickly comes to mind are state provisions that allow developers to keep property assessments (real market value in the millions) for vacant property tabbed for annexation or development artificially low by claiming to grow crops such as grass for hay. That "cheat" later evolves into the next cheat when they draw a TIF District around the property.

Those low artificial assessments, usually paying just pennies on the dollar to taxing jurisdictions like school districts and city governments, continue in place as the baseline value for general fund purposes for as long as 27 years. This of course puts tremendous pressure on local taxpayers who are left funding a larger system of public services and payroll.

What a gimmick. It pains me to write that much of the corporate favored legislation at the state level has been approved with bipartisan support and TIF Districts are often approved with unanimous support. And politicians wonder why so many people want to take a sledgehammer to the system.

That's not to deny that some of the businesses mentioned in the Gazette's article happen to be big donors to politicians and special interest groups who promote and legislate tax loopholes and entitlements for their own benefit (notice there is no "dark home" discount for homeowners), but then we ...WE elect those people into office.

And, unlike developers and city hall insiders exploiting local tax bases for free land and cash in the name of jobs in the economic development "incentives" charade, there are no hostages or threats being made in the dark store gambit.

As a volunteer watchdog blog of bad government and even worse media, I also can't help to notice that the biggest players in our society have paid billions to rig the system keeping good government off-balance are also the same folks who defend the rigging by shame targeting those who either challenge the broken system or work it. "That's the reality," they say, "shut up!"

In other words, instead of naming businesses in an obvious effort to target them for public shame, why didn't the Gazette call out the party holding the majority in our state house, or name every member of the Wisconsin state senate and assembly (D or R) who either obstruct these reforms or allow the dark store hustle to remain workable and legal? Shame them instead.

The same goes for the so-called state aid formula that hasn't been changed since 2000. The Gazette and their minions point to it as a major problem fueling local budget shortfalls, but then dismiss pressure to update the formula with, "well, they don't have the political will in Madison to fix it." But they sure found the urgency and will to gerrymander electoral districts for their advantage.

When you endorse these politicians and vote for them - you own it.

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