WEST BEND — Among the ballot
measures and candidates that voters decided on was an advisory
referendum that asked voters to support legislation regarding the
dark store tax, as it is commonly called.
Washington County residents overwhelmingly voted in favor of the
referendum during the election Tuesday, with about 72 percent of the
electorate, about 45,000 people, casting their ballot in affirmative
within Washington County.
Support for the referendum was vast, with backers throughout the
state. Voters in 17 counties and six municipalities also voted for
the measure, petitioning their state legislators to pass a bill that
would make it more difficult for corporate retailers and other
retail establishments to challenge their assessments.
“I think everybody realizes that these dark store loopholes, when
the Walgreens and Meijers actually sue these municipalities to
reduce their property taxes to what it would be as an empty store,
it impacts that entire community because the homeowners will be the
ones to make up the difference,” said Donald Kriefall, chairman of
the County Board of Supervisors.
In the county, an advisory referendum related to the dark store tax
issue was introduced at the Executive Committee in June, when
committee supervisors voted to approve its placement on the Nov. 6
ballot, and was approved by the County Board of Supervisors at the
“That is an initiative from Outagamie County,” Kriefall said at the
executive committee meeting. “It is an advisory (referendum) to show
that we are in support of that. Right now, it is hung up in the
Legislature and we want to make sure the Legislature addresses it.”
The referendum asked voters to support two bills introduced by Sen.
Duey Stroebel and Rep. Robert Brooks, specifying how commercial
properties are valued by municipal assessors to prevent the legal
challenges that have been taking place in the previous few years.
Supporters had tried to persuade legislators to vote in favor of the
two bills during the end of 2017 but could not convince enough of
them to pass the legislation.
That stemmed from a decision made by justices of the Wisconsin
Supreme Court, when they sided with representatives from Walgreens
during a 2008 lawsuit challenging their assessment for properties in
Walgreens executives use lease agreements with other parties when
developing a site to open a retail location. They include the cost
of purchasing the land, the construction of the building as well as
other expenses such as taxes and operations.
They argued successfully that assessors should not incorporate the
payments they receive from the agreements when valuing the property,
effectively reducing its value along with the corresponding property
The decision in that case has spurred other challenges in which
corporate retailers argue their properties should not be valued when
they are operating, but during the times when they are vacant or
That has concerned municipal officials and advocacy groups, who
contend it will cause a shift in the tax burden from businesses to
homeowners. Municipalities must provide services to those areas,
through road maintenance and emergency services, causing an
increasing burden on operational expenses but with steady revenues.
Opponents claimed there is no uniformity in the assessments, that
locations are valued differently even though they are similar in
size with comparable characteristics. They also said that property
values should reflect the land and corresponding equipment and
supplies used to construct the facility — not the income generated
from the location.
“It clearly shows the public is concerned about the amount of
shifting and the fairness amongst property taxes,” Public Affairs
Coordinator Ethan Hollenberger said. “It is a reaffirmation of the
uniformity clause in the (Wisconsin) constitution for property taxes
by the people.”
Advocates hoped the results Tuesday would demonstrate to legislators
the amount of support the legislation had among the public. That it
would be one factor among others to eventually create progress.
“The bigger change in the prospects of this is the governor change,”
Hollenberger said. “Tony Evers being governor changes the dynamic in
a way that presents an opportunity to get it passed with some more
force from the executive branch.”
The strategy would be to include the measure in the budget.
“I would guess he would use it as a bargaining chip in the state
budget,” County Administrator Joshua Schoemann said. “The budget is
full of legislation.”