Feelin’ the squeeze: Hundreds appeal new commercial tax assessments

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Bob Archer says he’ll pretty much have to eat the $12,000 increase in property taxes because he can’t pass that on to his customers. Photo by John Robinson Bob Archer says he’ll pretty much have to eat the $12,000 increase in property taxes because he can’t pass that on to his customers. Photo by John Robinson

No one likes paying taxes. And Charlottesville property owners who saw their commercial assessments go up 65 percent, 90 percent or 100 percent really don’t like it—and they’re letting the city know with a record number of appeals.

“Totally outrageous,” says Downtown Business Association of Charlottesville president Joan Fenton, who owns a “little bitty” parcel on Third Street where “there’s nothing you can do with it.” That .032-acre parcel went up 30 percent, the average commercial increase, compared with the 4 percent residential real estate bump.

A Water Street property Fenton owns went up 50 percent. “I appealed both,” she says.

Bob Archer has owned Bob’s Wheel Alignment on Market Street for 36 years, and says, “I’ve never seen a jump like this.” His assessment went up 65 percent—nearly $1 million. “That’s quite a jump,” he says. “I can’t raise my prices. I’ll have to absorb it.” Archer, too, is one of the appealers.

Keith Woodard owns a number of rental properties, including the cache of affordable housing he bought from Dogwood Properties in 2007, and says he’s submitted several appeals. “It’s upward pressure on rents for those with low incomes,” he says.

Management Services Corporation, which dominates the student housing rental market, saw staggering increases of 147 percent and 190 percent on two Corner area parcels, and its Preston Square Apartments jumped 83 percent and Cambridge Square Apartments soared 70 percent, according to vice chair Rick Jones. “Our increased tax is just under $400,000,” he says.

His point to the city: “Hey, if you have people’s assessments going up 68 percent, 90 percent, 100 percent—you’ve kind of messed up.”

Jones contends Management Services’ older rental properties are being assessed at the same capitalization rate as newer rentals like The Flats, which sold for $77.5 million in November and which doesn’t have the same maintenance expenses as the 50-year-old buildings he manages.

The cap rate is a ratio of sales price and net operating income. The city, says Jones, uses a cap rate of 6.25 percent, but for older properties, 8 percent might be more appropriate.

No one budgets for increases like that, says Jones, and with rentals, “You’re locked into a lease for a year.”

Jeff Davis is the city assessor taking the heat for the skyrocketing assessments. He worked for Albemarle County for around 30 years before moving to the city in December 2015. Davis brought in his former boss, Bruce Woodzell, former president of the International Association of Assessing Officers and a man who’s gotten his own share of flak in the county, to help with the commercial assessments and the 400 appeals.

And although Jones isn’t happy with the assessments, he is pleased to see Woodzell, a nationally known figure in the real estate valuation world, working for the city.

Davis explains the jump: “We had an overwhelming amount of sales evidence showing we were low on our assessments.”

He also says cap rates are low around Charlottesville, but says the city uses different rates for different types of properties. “We do give consideration, we do recognize older properties have greater expenses,” he says. “We do allow more for older properties.”

Says Davis, “This is not one size fits all.” At the same time, land values in Charlottesville are soaring. “It’s very expensive,” he says.

And while a lot of people are upset about the amount of the assessment increase, he says, “We have not heard people say, ‘My property is not worth that.’”

For those contesting their assessments, the first stop is Davis’ office. “If the appraiser is not able to satisfy them, they file an appeal form,” he says. His office will either affirm, reduce or, in some cases, increase the assessment, he says. If that still doesn’t placate the property owner, the next steps are the Board of Equalization and circuit court.

Management Services’ Jones sees a disturbing correlation between the spike in assessments and the city’s nearly $6 million surplus last year and $4.3 million surplus in 2015.

Not related, says Mayor Mike Signer. Last year’s surplus was 2 percent of the budget. “It was a reasonable surplus,” he says, and the city is required to spend it and close out the books for that fiscal year. “You don’t, like, stash the cash,” he says. Instead, the city put it into the capital budget, the Robert E. Lee statue fund and public safety employees’ salary increases.

Signer is aware of the sting of the increased tax bills, and he proposed lowering the property tax rate from 95 cents per $100 of value to 93 cents—a proposal that drew no support from his four fellow councilors.

“I’m principally interested in the effects of the cost of doing business for small businesses and medium-sized businesses,” he says. “The question is what you do as a policy when you have historic jumps.”

A 2-cent reduction in the tax rate would give back $1.4 million out of this year’s budget and means it would go up 5 percent rather than 6 percent, says Signer. “I think you could get that without too much pain,” he says, and give a “modest but significant amount back.”

For Jones, it’s all too much. “I wish there had been an assessor who said, ‘Wow, there’s a problem here, let’s raise rates gradually.’”

Rent forecast: Going up

The Flats

  • 2016 assessment: $38,509,000
  • 2017 increase: $73,864,600 or 92%

Preston Square Apartments

  • 2016 assessment: $2,784,300
  • 2017 increase: $5,157,400 or 85%

Bob’s Wheel Alignment

  • 2016 assessment: $1,440,200
  • 2017 increase: $2,381,634 or 65%

Barracks Road Shopping Center

  • 2016 assessment: $123,353,400
  • 2017 increase: $166,813,200 or 35%
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