Based on a 2008 Wisconsin Supreme Court ruling involving a Madison Walgreens, big box stores have sought to lower their assessments to reflect the value of other stores that are “dark,” or vacant. Officials from Wisconsin municipalities said they are being bombarded with assessment appeals for big box stores, which is burdening them with legal costs.

There’s an issue that citizens of Monona and residents across the state of Wisconsin should be aware of, called the “dark store” loophole. Big box stores like Menards, Target and Walmart, to name a few, are successfully arguing in court that their property should be assessed as a vacant or abandoned building of the same size, not including the value of the business on the property. Such victories will have dire consequences for municipalities large and small because they allow big box stores to push a significant tax burden onto small businesses and homeowners.

What could this mean? The city of Monona has approximately eight big box stores within its city boundaries. If, for example, the Monona Walmart successfully argued their current property assessment of $28.5 million is too high and instead the property should be assessed as a vacant building, its value could be reduced to $9.5 million — a devaluation of $19 million.

Why is this important? Municipalities across Wisconsin will be deeply affected if these stores are able to take advantage of this and other loopholes to reduce their property value. In this example, if Monona’s Walmart was successful in reducing its assessment, Walmart’s tax bill would be reduced by an estimated $433,000. Of this, the city would lose $111,000 in tax revenue. Additionally, the Monona Grove School District would lose about $245,000. As a result, the city would have to cut services, or raise the tax rate for homeowners and small businesses. To maintain the current level of city services, it would cost the average homeowner an additional $113 in property taxes, and the average commercial property, or small business, approximately $600 more. This is just one example, but if other big box stores in Monona like Shopko and Menards followed suit, an increase of $113 would seem small. This is real money with real impact.

To gain a greater understanding of where some of the city’s taxes go, we can look at one department, the Monona Police Department. In 2016, our department spent $75,089 in police officer time for theft, armed robberies, assaults, drug deals, and other issues just at big box stores within Monona. Walmart alone cost the city $51,731 in police services. Overall, 1,464 hours of officer time (1,009 hours just at Walmart) were spent on an initial response to calls at all of Monona’s big box stores. The large amount of hours does not include the time and cost of any additional follow-up on a call such as writing reports or investigative efforts. This is time not spent patrolling other businesses, slowing down traffic on residential streets, pulling over drunken drivers, or serving some other part of the city. Big box stores like Walmart and others would be successfully pushing the tax burden onto city residents and small businesses, while benefiting from city tax resources.

What can we do? The Monona City Council passed a resolution urging our state representatives to take quick action to close the “dark store” loophole, but we need to do more. Currently, there are two bills, Assembly Bill 386 and Senate Bill 292, which would close the loophole; however, progress has been slow, likely due to opposition lobbying. Urge your own representatives to stand up for the residents and small business owners of Wisconsin by closing these loopholes — quickly. Other states like Michigan and Indiana have faced the same challenge and have passed similar legislation with bipartisan support. It’s time Wisconsin followed suit.

The big box stores receive city services — emergency services, road construction and maintenance, etc., and they are not just vacant buildings. They should be taxed accordingly. Contact your representatives and urge them to support this common-sense legislation. Let’s not allow big box stores and big lobby groups to push their tax burden onto our residents and small businesses.

Andrew Kitslaar is a Monona alder.

Share your opinion on this topic by sending a letter to the editor to tctvoice@madison.com. Include your full name, hometown and phone number. Your name and town will be published. The phone number is for verification purposes only. Please keep your letter to 250 words or less.

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