As Big Retailers Seek to Cut Their Tax Bills, Towns Bear the Brunt

As Big Retailers Seek to Cut Their Tax Bills, Towns Bear the Brunt

And in Wauwatosa, a shopping polestar in Wisconsin where chockablock malls attract families in the market for $4,000 sofas, Adidas NMDs and a Cheesecake Factory pig out, the city is fighting property tax appeals in court dating back to 2015 from Lowe’s, Nordstrom, Best Buy, Meijer and United Healthcare. It recently settled with Target, Walgreens and a KFC franchise.

“It’s like a virus,” said Kathleen Ehley, the mayor of Wauwatosa.

In the Lowe’s case, the company spent more than $16 million to buy the land and construct its 140,000-square-foot building less than a dozen years ago. The city assessed the spot in a bustling retail hub right off Highway 41 at $13.6 million. The company’s appraisal was $7.1 million, based on sales of empty and once empty buildings in other neighborhoods.

Lowe’s declined to comment because the case is being litigated.

But the city’s assessor said Lowe’s had partly based its analysis on stores that were more than 25 years old and in economically declining neighborhoods. Another store was listed as comparable in part because of its “proximity” to a shopping mall, although instead of the booming center near this Lowe’s, that mall had closed 15 years earlier.

City officials estimate that the current string of dark-store lawsuits alone would require it to refund $4.1 million of tax payments — the equivalent of about a tenth of its total property tax revenue this year.

“Either my property taxes are going to go up or my schools are going to suffer,” said Lisa Williams, who lives in a classic Craftsman-style bungalow a few minutes’ drive from Lowe’s in Wauwatosa, a comfortable suburb of Milwaukee. “The stores want to get all the benefits of being here without any of the costs.”

Ms. Williams, 53, a researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee who has three children, added, “Everybody in the neighborhood shops there.”

Efforts to reduce tax assessments on the local level are continuing even as businesses are seeing hefty reductions in their federal taxes from last year’s tax overhaul in Washington.

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