The City of Rhinelander is now facing three separate lawsuits from Walmart as the retailer continues to pursue property tax reductions using the so-called "dark store" loophole.
Using the loophole, big box retailers like Walmart, Menards and Walgreens argue that their properties should be assessed at the same rate as similar vacant buildings. This "loophole" stems from a 2008 state Supreme Court ruling that Madison city assessors had overvalued a Walgreens store and therefore the difference had to be refunded.
Walmart filed the first lawsuit, under the name of Lincoln Plaza, Inc., on July 25, 2018 claiming it was overassessed by nearly $4.5 million in 2017 and requesting a refund for the overpayment.
The second lawsuit was filed on Aug. 29, 2018.
It alleges the city of Rhinelander's 2018 assessment of the Walmart parcel on Lincoln Street was $13,970,400. The company alleges the property is worth only $9,500,000, the value it would have if it were vacant, and has requested a refund of $4,470,400.
A third lawsuit was filed Aug. 23. It challenges the city's 2019 assessment of the Walmart property.
According to the complaint in the new case, the 2019 value of the property was set by the city assessor's office at $13,970,400 . The retailer contends the value of the property as of Jan. 1, 2019 was no higher than $5,700,000.
As in the previous two lawsuits, Walmart is seeking a a declaration from Oneida County Circuit Judge Michael Bloom that the assessment of the property was "not uniform with the assessments of other properties in the City and State and therefore, violates the Uniformity Clause of the Wisconsin Constitution. It also seeks declaratory judgment reducing the valuation of the property to $5,700,00, that Walmart is entitled to a refund of the excess taxes paid as well as all legal fees."
The city has 20 days from the date of service to file a response.
According to circuit court records, an affidavit of service was filed Sept. 19.
The city of Rhinelander went up against Walgreens on the same issue in 2007, 2008, 2011 and 2012, with all cases settling before going to trial.
The city also faced a dark store lawsuit from Menards. In July 2017, that company filed a lawsuit challenging the company's property tax bill for 2016. The two sides reached a stipulated settlement and the case was dismissed in February 2018.
The city retained the law firm of von Briesen and Roper, S.C. in August 2018 to defend against the first suit, and later the second suit. The firm has been handling all of the city's legal affairs since the council voted to terminate the contract with former city attorney Carrie Miljevich effective May 31.
The Common Council will discuss the first two lawsuits with representatives from von Briesen in closed session during Monday's regular council meeting, according to an agenda posted Thursday.
If Walmart prevails in the lawsuits, any taxes refunded would be divided up among the four local taxing authorities, the city, the School District of Rhinelander, Nicolet College and Oneida County.
Jamie Taylor may be reached via email at jamie@rivernews online.com.
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