By Corinne Murdock |
The city of Phoenix is being sued over its capitalization of a loophole to shield high-rise luxury apartments from up to an estimated $7 million in property taxes.
The city of Phoenix effectively agreed to relieve private real estate developer Hubbard Street Group of around $7 million in property taxes by taking ownership of their property, “Skye on 6th,” and declaring it part of a slum or blighted area while the developer continues to operate and manage the property. In return, the developer agreed to pay a total of $525,000 in rent to the city, pay $32,000 to two school districts, and dedicate 10 percent of its residential units to workforce housing for the eight years of the lease. The city arranged this deal through the state’s statutory provisions outlining the Government Property Lease Excise Tax (GPLET).
In the case Paulin v. City of Phoenix, two taxpayers represented by the Goldwater Institute sued the city over allegedly violating the Arizona Constitution’s Gift Clause and Evasion Clause.
Since local governments are exempt from property taxes, GPLET enables governments to accrue revenue on its property by leasing to businesses. The Goldwater Institute, on behalf of the two Phoenix taxpayers, argues that the city took advantage of GPLET by assuming ownership of the property of interest to a private business in order to provide a special tax break to that business. Although the government sustains a reduced revenue stream and taxpayers pay more under such an arrangement, the Goldwater Institute alleges that local politicians may claim business growth while paying off the business with a tax write-off.
“[U]nder this arrangement, private property is conveyed in form to the government while in substance being owned and operated by a private party for the sole purpose of evading property taxes to which other taxpayers are subject,” stated the complaint. “The result of this arrangement is a gift of public resources to a private business, and a conveyance of property to evade taxes in violation of Arizona’s Constitution.”
Those poised to lose out on their share of the $7 million in tax payments would include the city, Maricopa County, Maricopa County Community College District, Central Arizona Project, Maricopa Special Healthcare District, Fire District Assistance Tax, and special taxing districts for library and flood control. Phoenix Elementary School District and Phoenix Union High School District are the two school districts receiving the tens of thousands to reportedly offset their share of the lost tax revenue.
The Goldwater Institute also disputed the city’s characterization of the contested property as located in a slum or blighted area: a condition required for an eight-year tax abatement as provided in the GPLET agreement between Phoenix and the developer.
A hearing on the case took place last week in the Maricopa County Superior Court. The city argued that taxpayers upset by their arrangement with the developer were truly upset with the existence of GPLET. The city contended that the taxpayers should petition lawmakers to reform GPLET law to prevent their actions.
Counsel for the city also contended that any claims that their actions violated the Gift Clause would render GPLET impossible to use.
The city also claimed that Hubbard Street Group was chosen through the request-for-proposal (RFP) process, and disputed the claim that Hubbard Street Group approached the city first.
The Goldwater Institute argued that there were no actual reservations of ownership, control, or management of the property. They also argued that the city never intended to hold onto the property itself, but always intended to convey the property back to the lessee. Counsel for the developer contended that claim, referencing a contract provision that the property will be owned by the city.
In a statement, Goldwater Vice President for Litigation Jon Riches said that Phoenix’s use of GPLET is unconstitutional.
“The Arizona Constitution prohibits the transfer of property to evade taxes that are otherwise owed and that other taxpayers must pay,” said Riches. “Here, the city of Phoenix allowed private property to be transferred to the city even though it will never be used as city property so that one special interest could avoid paying taxes on it. We are hopeful the court will agree this artificial transfer violates the Constitution.”
In 2020, the Maricopa County Superior Court struck down a similar GPLET arrangement between the city of Phoenix and another high-rise residential developer. Four months later, the city entered into the currently-contested GPLET agreement with Hubbard Street Group.
A ruling on the case may occur sometime within the next several months.