Customers line up outside of the Ellsworth Walmart in April of 2020. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

In a dispute over how tax assessments are calculated, Walmart in Ellsworth is appealing its bill and asking for a reduction of its property value assessment by half, which would cut it from $20 million to $10 million.

But the city wants to know how much money the local store has pulled in — and Walmart is refusing to say.

Walmart is appealing its 2020 tax assessment by the city, and is hoping to get its tax bill reduced from about $360,000 to $180,000, according to Larry Gardner, the city’s assessor. As part of that request, Gardner has asked Walmart to provide him sales figures from the past three years.

On Monday night, the city’s board of appeals met to consider Walmart’s request for a lower tax bill, but it declined to release its sales figures for its Ellsworth store.

“The city asked Walmart for all sorts of financial info,” said Jeff Toothkaer, a local criminal defense attorney who chairs the city’s appeals board. “Walmart said ‘no.’”

The request was tabled, Toothaker said, to give the city and Walmart time to sort through possible legal arguments over whether the city is entitled to the information. He said he expects the board to take up Walmart’s request again sometime this fall.

The difference in opinion over the store’s property stems from two different interpretations of how the city should determine the value of the property.

Gardner says the income generated by a property should be reflected in how much the property is worth and what its taxes should be.

Walmart’s position is that its properties are not meant to be repurposed and should be valued as if the stores were dark — vacant, up for sale and likely unappealing to prospective buyers. As a result, the company argues, its buildings should have lower property values for local tax purposes.

The stance is one that has caught on in recent years among such ‘big box’ retailers across the country as they seek to reduce their expenses and generate more profits for their shareholders.

Last year, a bill was introduced in the Maine Legislature that would have ensured that stores larger than 20,000 square feet were valued based on their current use but, according to information posted on the Legislature’s website, the bill “died upon conclusion of the 129th Legislature [on] Nov 16, 2020.”

Gardner says that in appeals when a large retail company is asking for an abatement, he always asks that company for their recent sales figures and, if applicable, copies of their lease agreements with their landlords. State law allows him to ask for such information, which many companies consider proprietary, but bars him from releasing it publicly, he said.

If a property owner declines to provide such info to a municipality, then the municipality is allowed by state law to legally deny the abatement request, Gardner said.

Gardner said that his record in requesting and receiving such info from retailers that ask for tax abatements is “pretty good,” though with one exception. Walmart also contested the city’s 2017 tax assessment, and now has another appeal on that assessment pending before the Maine  State Board of Property Tax Review.

“Walmart is the standout,” Gardner said.

Bruce Stavitsky, a New Jersey lawyer who is representing Walmart in its Ellsworth tax appeal, declined to comment when reached by phone Wednesday evening.

Bill Trotter

A news reporter in coastal Maine for more than 20 years, Bill Trotter writes about how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coastline help to shape the lives of coastal Maine residents and visitors....