With Brunswick embroiled in a lengthy dispute over the value of the Cook’s Corner Walmart, one Brunswick town councilor is trying to keep big box stores from locking other communities in similar property tax battles.
“Big Retail and their army of lawyers and lobbyists have been using something called the ‘Dark Store Theory’ where they claim they should be valued as if they were an empty storefront and not a thriving businesses,” said councilor and Legislative Aide Dan Ankeles. He called this a “dishonest argument” that is “effectively stealing from Brunswick families and small businesses.”
LD 2045, expected to appear before the Legislature’s Taxation Committee on Tuesday, would require that, for property tax purposes, retail stores larger than 20,000 square feet must be valued based on current use compared to similar properties in their retail market segment, or, if vacant, according to their highest and best use. The bill is sponsored by Rep. Ryan Tipping and co-sponsored by Rep. Mattie Daughtry, Senate President Troy Jackson and Sen. Nate Libby.
“Walmart is in the middle of trying to do this to us right now,” Ankeles said. “It’s something cooed up to grind towns down into settling for less. Most of the time they don’t want to go through the legal process. There comes a time when you have to stand up for people and say we’re going to find you down to the bitter end. That’s what Brunswick’s going to do. … We’re trying to be a leader.”
In 2017, Walmart, the seventh-highest property taxpayer in Brunswick, asked the town to slash its taxable value by nearly $7 million for 2017 on the grounds that the building’s $16.9 million assessed value “exceeds the property’s fair market value,” a move that would cost Brunswick roughly $128,000 in tax revenue.
At the time, then-Brunswick Assessor Cathy Jamison denied the company’s abatement request. Walmart claimed the property was only worth about $10 million, citing a Walmart appraisal that Brunswick Town Attorney Stephen Langsdorf said this summer was “very, very flawed.”
Walmart also filed a separate 2018/2019 abatement last spring, contesting again that the $16.9 million assessment “exceeds the property’s fair market value,” but this time valued the property at $11.2 million, $1.2 million more than the 2017 request. If granted, Walmart would pay about $212,000 in annual property taxes, rather than the $320,000 it paid in 2018, costing the town another $108,000. Then-Brunswick Assessor Nick Cloutier denied the request.
Walmart then appealed to the local board of assessors, which also denied the request, before then appealing to the state board of assessment.
In June, Brunswick hired Stephen Traub, an independent appraiser to appraise the 15 Tibbett’s Dr. property. He valued the property at $21 million. Cloutier also attended the appraisal and raised his estimate by nearly $1 million, to $17.8 million.
Part of the State Board of Appeals process requires that the sides attempt to reach a mediated solution. After they failed to reach an agreement in October, Cloutier said they were waiting to schedule a date with the state board of assessment, but that “the process can take some time” and that it will likely “not be anytime soon.”
Cloutier has since left the position and Assistant Town Manager Ryan Leighton, the acting assessor, said last week that there have not been any developments in the case.
This appeal is a common move for Walmart, which has reportedly been challenging property tax valuations around the country for years, “looking for any relief they can get,” said Langsdorf said. “This is part of a very broad effort, where they go around the country challenging property tax valuations,” he said. Walmart has hired Stavitsky and Associates, a property tax appeal law firm based out of New Jersey to handle the filings.
The trend is mirrored across the state in towns like Ellsworth, Oxford, Thomaston, Bangor and Augusta.
The “dark store loophole” is a common attempt used by big box stores to lower their property tax value. Critics of the loophole argue that an established, bustling retail location — like the one in Brunswick — would have a much higher value than an empty shell of a building.
“It’s a matter of basic fairness,” Ankeles said, and though the term “dark store” has not come up in negotiations, “it’s all but said explicitly,” he said.
The company contends that its conflict with towns such as Brunswick is necessary to fight what they see as unfair taxation.
“Fair property taxation is critical to our efficient operation and ability to save our customers’ money, and we strive to work directly and collaboratively with local jurisdictions to reach a fair market value,” Delia Garcia, senior director of communications for Walmart said over the summer.
For Brunswick, Ankeles said it would be nice to have the legislature backing up the town.
“I’m in a unique position where I see these things happening up here and I help write our local budget,” he said.
Earlier this month, councilors told The Times Record they were bracing for a tough budget year with a new elementary school opening and construction of the new fire station slated to begin, among other projects.
“The last thing we need is Walmart trying to take thousands of dollars from the budget when we need that money,” Ankeles said.
Attempts to reach Walmart representatives Monday afternoon were unsuccessful.
Published by the Sun Journal