Hall County, Nebraska is located along Interstate 80 in picturesque central Nebraska. According to the County Board of Supervisors, Hall county has “the ideal blend of town and country life.” The attraction of this part of Nebraska, the Supervisors say, is “the convenience of city life with the beauty and serenity that only country life has.” But that serenity is disappearing rapidly. The county attracts tourists with its hunting, fishing, camping, horse racing, and bird watching. But recently county officials have been watching Wal-Mart instead of birds. Grand Island is the 4th largest city in Nebraska, with roughly 46,000 people. The city has two Wal-Mart supercenters located roughly 4 miles apart. One Wal-Mart is on the north side of the city on North Diers Ave. The second superstore is on the southside of the city on South Locust Street. The Grand Island Independent newspaper reports this week that Wal-Mart has been putting some pressure on these country folks to save the retailer some money. The newspaper says that Wal-Mart’s falling prices are not the issue in Hall County — but the falling value of Wal-Mart’s store has become a bone of contention. Wal-Mart recently got the county Supervisors to lower the retailer’s property tax valuation by $1.2 million. That translated into a $25,000 break in their property taxes, which may not sound like a big deal to a huge corporation, but these tax breaks multiplied over several thousand stores can add up to tens of millions in saved costs. The Supervisors voted July 21st to cut the northern store’s valuation from $15.2 million to $14 million — but only after the company filed a protest. Wal-Mart claimed in its protest that another big box store, Menards, got a 50% discount on its land value, and that Wal-Mart got only a 30% discount. Wal-Mart wanted its fair “size discount.” “It’s not about the building — it’s about the land,” Hall County’s Assessor told the Independent. Yet county records show that Wal-Mart bought the land for $4 million, and was only assessed at $3 million by the county. “They’re already getting a $1 million discount,” argued County Supervisor Gary Quandt, who voted against the decrease. But another Supervisor warned that if the county denied Wal-Mart its tax break, the company would simply appeal the case to the Nebraska State Tax Equalization and Review Commission. Wal-Mart would argue that similar stores were getting a lower value per square foot. But Quandt and two other Supervisors didn’t buy the arguments, and voted against giving Wal-Mart a further tax break. They lost by one vote, when four Supervisors voted to give the corporation the everyday low taxes it wanted. According to the newspaper, the Supervisors who voted for the tax welfare did so because they wanted to avoid spending county time and money on an appeal they felt the county would lose. Just by threatening an appeal to the state, Wal-Mart saved itself another $25,000 in property taxes that other taxpayers in the city now will have to make up. Wal-Mart also filed a protest on its southern store, but in that case, the county appraisers left the store at $11.3 million, with no reduction in taxes.
The most insulting part of this story is that Wal-Mart has an abandoned store in Grand Island that the company is trying to sell. Their empty store on W. 13th St. is 116,646 s.f. — roughly the size of two football fields. Wal-Mart shut down the discount store, which was built in 1989, wasting more than 9 acres of land, just so they could build a larger supercenter minutes away. Part of this store has been rented. There is roughly 25,000 s.f. left inbetween a tractor supply store and a Hobby Lobby, that is sitting idle. Wal-Mart has a private real estate company trying to sell the empty middle section of this store. Rather than simply convert this store into a superstore, Wal-Mart convinced county officials to let them build a bigger store minutes away — all so they could get more market share in the grocery business — and then they turned around and started negotiating lower taxes for its two existing stores. The county did not have to approve the two superstores, but in return for playing ball with Wal-Mart, they ended up having a protest filed against them. Wal-Mart got its tax break — at the expense of other businesses and homeowners in Grand Island. Readers are urged to email the Hall County Supervisors at [email protected] with the following message: “Dear Hall County Supervisors, It’s hard to believe that after Wal-Mart talked you into allowing them to abandon their discount store to build a second superstore only minutes from their first superstore — that you then granted them a big, fat tax break. Wal-Mart could have done what’s known as an ‘inbox conversion’ on their W. 13 St. store — and had their second superstore without filing a single permit. But you went along for the convenience of the company, and now they muscled you down on their property valuation. This is how the company does business with everyone: their vendors, their workers, their host communities. It’s all about pressuring for a lower price — on everything and anything. Communities have complained for years that Wal-Mart tries to chisel down its property tax payments, and avoid its state tax payments with bookkeeping tricks. It’s time for Grand Island to stop literally giving away the store to big chains. It’s time to end the ‘size discount’ concept. You don’t give residential taxpayers a size discount, why give tax breaks to the wealthiest companies? You are only giving Wal-Mart one more competitive advantage over smaller merchants who can’t rely on such tax breaks, and who, in fact, have to make up the difference from what Wal-Mart didn’t pay. Wal-Mart gets rewarded for filing a protest. What message of fairness does that send to smaller businesses in town that are being squeezed by two superstores? Stop the corporate welfare. There’s nothing grand about what Grand Island has been giving away.”