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Woodman's fights its tax bill

Tuesday, January 23, 2018
Andrew Dowd | Leader-Telegram

Woodman's Food Market contends the city of Altoona overassessed its store there by more than $2 million, resulting in a tax bill $62,183 higher than the grocer believes it should pay.

A lawyer representing the Janesville-based grocery chain sent a claim of overassessment earlier this month to Altoona, which the City Council will discuss in closed session during its 6 p.m. Thursday meeting at City Hall, 1303 Lynn Ave.

The city assessed the store at $15.86 million for property tax purposes, but Woodman's, through Minnesota attorney Robert Hill, claims it should only be $13.55 million.

Instead of the $352,363 property tax bill that Woodman's currently owes Altoona this year, Hill wrote that it should be $290,180.

In recent years, retailers in the Chippewa Valley, throughout Wisconsin and other states have contested the assessed value of their stores.

It hasn't been an issue in Altoona until now, but city Administrator Michael Golat has seen other cities handle claims and sometimes lawsuits over property assessments.

"I just view it as part of doing business," he said.

Altoona's neighbor, Eau Claire, has seen numerous retailers contest their assessments in recent years. When claims are rejected, the property owners can then file lawsuits. Last year, Sears Holdings Corp. and Younkers owner Bonstores Realty One both filed suit against Eau Claire, which they also had done in prior years, to contest assess-ments for their stores in Oakwood Mall.

Altoona so far has only gotten Hill's two-page letter, Golat said, which doesn't have details on the comparable sales used to come up with the value it claims for the local store.

Woodman's letter also claims it was denied the opportunity to appeal its assessment to the Board of Review last year. Golat said Woodman's application for an appeal was incomplete.

Woodman's opened the 240,000-square-foot store in September 2015 at 2855 Woodman Drive in Altoona's River Prairie development. The claim filed earlier this month with the city pertains just to the 2017 assessment, which did not change from the $15.86 million it was assessed at the year before.

Woodman's is contesting store assessments throughout the state, Hill said in a phone interview with the Leader-Telegram. The Wayzata, Minn.-based attorney also has represented Walmart, Menards and Shopko when they've challenged assessments in Wisconsin.

The retailers have used the rationale that assessments should be based on recent sale prices of stores - including those that have been closed.

Hill contends assessors have overassessed retail stores for decades, ever since the rise of big box stores, which he likened to warehouses.

And Hill said it's gotten worse as brick-and-mortar stores have been under pressure from e-commerce and the Great Recession. The result is that when stores close and hit the market, they're selling for less.

"These things are selling for a fraction of what they cost to build them," he said.

But local governments have contested that values of thriving stores should not be determined in part by those that are shuttered.

The Eau Claire County Board in March voted to support state legislation that would close what they've called the "dark store" loophole.

There are bills in the state Legislature proposing to do that, but they face opposition fromthe state's chamber of commerce, Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce.

Contact: 715-833-9204, andrew.dowd@ecpc.com, @ADowd_LT on Twitter

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