Delaware Court Unlocks Opportunities to Reduce Property Tax Burden
Reducing property tax assessments can be challenging under the best of circumstances, and distinctions between state tax systems make minimizing that burden across an office or industrial portfolio especially daunting. But a recent Delaware Supreme Court decision provides taxpayers with a new, yet surprisingly familiar, opportunity to ease the tax burden on properties in The First State.
Delaware’s Tax Assessment System Shows its Age
Under Delaware law, property must be valued at its “true value in money,” a term interpreted to mean the property’s “present actual market value.” However, in order to implement the Delaware Constitution’s mandate of tax uniformity, the state applies a base-year method of assessing property. That means that all property in a jurisdiction is assessed in terms of its value as of a certain date, and that value remains on the books indefinitely until the jurisdiction performs a general reassessment. For Delaware’s northernmost county, New Castle County, the last reassessment occurred in 1983, so all property therein is valued as of July 1, 1983.
A major challenge to contesting assessments in Delaware is that a taxpayer must determine the property’s 1983 market value. Determining what a property is worth today is not always easy, but proving a property’s value as of three decades ago has proven increasingly difficult. Furthermore, in the absence of regular adjustments to a property’s assessed value, the county asserts that a property should be valued either as it existed in 1983 or, if it was built after 1983, as if it is new and undepreciated.
Delaware’s courts have explained that taxpayers have two options in assessment appeals. The first option is to use data from the base year. The property owner could, for example, find sales of comparable properties in or around 1983, or using prevailing market rents and capitalization rates from 1983. The alternative route is to calculate the current market value of the property and “trend back” that amount to 1983. The County Board of Assessment Review has expressed a near-absolute preference for 1983 data, and rarely finds a taxpayer’s trending formula acceptable.
The inequities of this practice are blatant. Under the county’s interpretation of the base year system, a building constructed in 1983 and located next door to a similar new building should be assessed and taxed at the same level, even though buyers, sellers and tenants are likely to value the buildings quite differently. If the owner of the 34-year-old building wanted to contest its assessment, the owner would have to identify data for new buildings in 1983. Of course, as time marches on and years turn to decades, relevant data from the base year becomes increasingly difficult to find.
Taxpayers Highlight the System’s Obsolescence
Taxpayers have raised many challenges to Delaware’s assessment system, but most successful challenges have been fact-specific, and no recent court has gone so far as to order Delaware’s counties to complete a reassessment. But after several attempts, the taxpayers in Commerce Associates LP v. New Castle County Office of Assessment successfully underscored the largest flaw in the system.
One Commerce Center is an office condominium building in Wilmington, Delaware. The county originally assessed each office condominium upon construction in 1983. After keeping the same tax assessment for decades, the owners of several of the condominiums challenged their assessments in 2015.
Before the County Board of Assessment Review, the owners presented five different analyses. Two analyses relied on comparable sales transactions, one using 1983 sales of buildings that were about 32 years old, and one using modern asking prices trended back to 1983 using the Consumer Price Index (CPI). Two analyses relied on income, one using 1983 data and one using 2015 data trended back to 1983 using the CPI. The fifth analysis employed a cost approach using the original construction expense and reflecting depreciation. These approaches showed that the properties were over-assessed by more than 40 percent.
The county presented evidence of the condominiums’ sale prices in 1985, when each unit was relatively new. The county also presented an income approach using 1983 data and a cost approach reflecting no depreciation. The county’s approaches all supported the original assessed values, and the board ultimately denied the taxpayers’ appeals.
State Supreme Court Approves a Decrease
After having their appeals denied by the Superior Court, the taxpayers brought their challenge to the Delaware Supreme Court. In a tersely worded decision, the Supreme Court reiterated that assessors must consider all relevant factors bearing on the value of a property in its current condition. While the county argued that no depreciation was needed because the properties were brand new in 1983, the court noted that the properties were, in reality, more than 34 years old. Failing to account for their age and any resulting depreciation or appreciation resulted in a flawed value.
Although the county has yet to implement the court’s decision, the effects of the decision will likely be widespread. Most properties in New Castle County built after 1983 are assessed without any depreciation. Because each tax year brings with it a new opportunity to challenge an assessment, property owners can bring a new appeal reflecting the property’s current depreciation to the Board of Assessment Review every year. Ultimately, this could result in the downfall of the decades-old base-year assessment, as the county finds it necessary to update assessments for a larger number of properties.
A number of questions remain unanswered by the court’s ruling. How should assessors value properties in areas that were rural in 1983 but are now highly developed? How can taxpayers quantify and reconcile appreciation and depreciation?
Future cases will need to resolve these questions, but for now, owners of Delaware property should evaluate their portfolios and determine whether opportunities exist to improve profitability by reducing property taxes.
Benjamin Blair is an attorney with the law firm of Faegre Baker Daniels LLP, the Indiana and Iowa member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.