The Wal-Mart store in Geneva, New York did not like its property tax assessment, so it sued the town to get it dramatically cut. But the Finger Lakes Times reports this week that Wal-Mart has decided to back off, and pay its taxes like a big company. Wal-Mart was suing to get its assessment more than halved, from $4.8 million to less than $2.3 million. Last July, Wal-Mart filed the lawsuit, charging that the store’s assessment was too high, because property in the town is assessed at 65% of full value. The tax is actually paid to Ontario County and the Geneva City School District, because the town of Geneva doesn’t have a property tax. But now Wal-Mart has decided to drop the lawsuit. Why the change of heart? Wal-Mart’s lawyer says its because “the town has been working well with Wal-Mart on the supercenter… It was a business and policy judgment, in view of the high degree of cooperation. Even though we still object to the store’s assessment, we’d rather go forward with what’s being done on the supercenter.” In other words, Wal-Mart now has bigger fish to fry. The retailer has proposed expanding its current discount store into a larger supercenter. A local citizen’s group against the superstore, Roll Forward Geneva, questioned the timing of the lawsuit, because it was filed just five weeks after the chain announced its supercenter expansion plans, and at the same time it was beginning the hearing process for its permits. The lawsuit put pressure on the town to act favorably on the superstore. Roll Forward Geneva had just placed an ad in the Finger Lakes Times to encourage people to attend a public hearing on the project. The citizen’s group charged that Wal-Mart used the lawsuit as “a bargaining chip” to get the nsupercenter built. The Town’s Supervisor told the newspaper that Wal-Mart has unsuccessfully tried to lower its assessment for years, so it had nothing to do with the supercenter project. She added that Wal-Mart files similar lawsuits against municipalities across the New York state. The Finger Lake Times reported that Wal-Mart has a lawsuit pending against the town of Seneca Falls, New York for its assessment on an existing store, and a new supercenter was just approved there. The Seneca Falls Town Assessor told the newspaper that she believes Wal-Mart files lawsuits against municipalities where supercenter projects are pending and they have existing stores on the real estate market. It is easier to sell an existing store if it has a lower assessment, she said. Wal-Mart’s lawyer told the newspaper the company has been “very successful” in getting cities and towns to lower their assessments.
To expand the Geneva store, Wal-Mart bought out the Harvest Hill garden center next door, which has been operating there for 34 years, and used its 7 acres to more than double the size of the existing Wal-Mart from 101,000 s.f. to 210,657 s.f. The Wal-Mart will abut a mobile home park when it expands the original store, which is 15 years old. Wal-Mart had to get the land rezoned from residential to business. The bigger store is needed, Wal-Mart said, “to provide greater convenience and choice to our customers in Geneva.” The town’s Supervisor claimed that a bigger Wal-Mart would increase the town’s sales base and “draw many, many people from the surrounding area to the store.” Wal-Mart apparently had a habit of building stores, and then challenging the property tax assessment, forcing small towns to spend money to defend their assessment in court, or to settle out of court. For earlier stories, search Newsflash by “Geneva” and “property taxes.”