Tax Court reverses assessment because of possible ‘math error’

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Finding a math error is objective rather than subjective, the Indiana Tax Court has revived the appeal of a property owner who argued the Bartholomew County assessor calculated his property tax assessment using the wrong base rate.

Bushmann LLC owned a 61,855-square-foot parcel of land that was home to a convenience store and gas station in Columbus. In 2016 and 2017, the property was assigned a total assessed value of $1.27 million. In 2018, the assessment climbed to $1.47 million.

The property owner filed an appeal of the 2018 assessment on Sept. 13, 2019. Additional appeals of the 2016 and 2017 assessments were filed on Jan. 7, 2020. Both times, Bushmann asserted a “clerical, mathematical, or typographical mistake.”

The Bartholomew County Property Tax Assessment Board of Appeals conducted a hearing and denied Bushmann’s appeals.

Turning to the Indiana Board of Tax Review, Bushmann maintained the assessor did not apply the base rate that has been set by the county’s land order. Bartholomew County’s land order established that its land was to be assessed at $10 per square foot for all three years. Instead, the Bushmann appeal asserted, the land was assessed at $13 per square foot in 2016 and 2017 and at $19 per square foot in 2018.

The assessor countered the correct base rate was used to value the land. She asserted that Bushmann’s land order contained a proposed base rate of $10 rather than the actual base rate that was to be applied to the land during 2016 through 2018.

Moreover, the assessor argued Bushmann filed the wrong type of appeals because the complaint raised only subjective errors about the valuation of the land.

The Indiana board agreed and tossed Bushmann’s appeal as untimely. Even though the property owner checked the box indicating a “clerical, mathematical, or typographic error,” the core issue was a challenge to the assessed value of the property. Therefore, Bushmann had 45 days to challenge the property’s assessed value and not the extended three-year deadline for challenging math errors.

Before the Tax Court, Bushmann supported his argument by pointing to Muir Woods Section One Ass’n v. O’Connor, 172 N.E. 3d 1205 (Ind. 2021).  In that ruling, the Indiana Supreme Court found the application of a base rate discount in a county land order was an objective error, not a subjective error regarding the property’s assessed value.

The assessor pushed back, asserting the decision in Muir Woods is misplaced. That case, the assessor claimed, “does not give taxpayers the opportunity to argue about any wrong perceived to have occurred [in a land assessment] simply because a land order is part of the argument.”

Persuaded by Bushmann, the Tax Court reversed and remanded to the Indiana board with instructions to determine whether the assessor applied the proper base rate in the 2016 through 2018 assessments.

“In this case, similar to the appeal in Muir Woods, Bushmann’s three appeals present questions about the objective application of an already-determined base rate prescribed by a land order,” Judge Martha Blood Wentworth wrote in Bushmann, LLC v. Bartholomew County Assessor, 21T-TA-00027.

“Specifically, during the administrative process, Bushmann claimed each of its land assessments contained a ‘math error’ because the Assessor did not use the established base rates in Bartholomew County’s land order when calculating the assessed values of its land,” Wentworth continued. “Consequently, the Court finds that the errors raised in Bushmann’s appeals are not inherently subjective, but instead challenge the objective application of a pre-determined base rate: the base rate from (Bartholomew) County’s land order was either applied or it was not.”

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