Ellsworth won't allow the city assessor to demand 600 out-of-town leases from Walmart

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Nov. 23—As part of his efforts to review how big retail giant Walmart's local property tax bill should be, Ellsworth City Assessor Larry Gardner wanted the company to provide him with copies of its 600 lease agreements it has across the country.

Walmart does not own all of the buildings where its stores are located — though it does in Ellsworth. Gardner, who is reviewing Walmart's 2020 Ellsworth property tax bill after the company filed an appeal with the city, said that those 600 lease agreements from around the country can help him determine what the value of the company's local property should be.

The city's appeals board, however, didn't agree. They rejected that request Monday, but decided it would be germane to get copies of lease agreements it has for its stores in Maine, and perhaps for New England, too.

Last year, Gardner assessed the value of the Myrick Street property, where Walmart has a Supercenter, at about $20 million but the company is appealing that assessment, saying it should be closer to $10 million.

If Walmart prevails in its appeal, its tax bill would be reduced from about $360,000 to $180,000.

Jeff Toothaker, the chair of Ellsworth's appeals board, voted against asking the company for copies of leases it holds elsewhere, though the panel's five other members were in favor of it.

"I think it is unduly burdensome," Toothaker said.

Bruce Stavitsky, an attorney for Walmart who was participating remotely in the board meeting, agreed with Toothaker.

"I've been doing property tax work since 1983, in the Northeast and New England and other parts of the United States, and never has an assessor made such a request as this," Stavitsky told the board. "It's outrageous. Any court of law or state tax board would shoot it down as being overly broad."

Stavitsky added that, to produce copies of 600 lease agreements, each of which could be 100 pages long, would result in 60,000 pages of documents to look through. The cost of printing them out, he said, could range between $20,000 and $30,000.

"It has no relevance," Stavitsky said of the lease agreements. "A fishing expedition — that's what this is."

The board will meet again sometime in the next month to hear additional arguments about why the tax bill should be reduced.

Gardner, who has been the city's assessor since 2000, said that he routinely asks companies for lease information when he assesses a property. He also asks companies how much revenue they generate from their locations in the city, which in Walmart's case would be its annual gross sales figures. Walmart also has objected to providing this information to Gardner, saying it is proprietary.

"I am the only assessor in the state who hasn't settled with Walmart," Gardner told the board, referring to other tax abatements Walmart has filed in other Maine towns.

Walmart has been granted abatements ranging from 2 percent to 12 percent elsewhere in Maine, he said, but he wants Walmart to prove the property is worth less than what he believes it is worth.

"They ask for 50 percent off everywhere they go," Gardner said.