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Wauwatosa faces un-appealing business tax fight

Target settlement is latest assessment appeal tied to attorney

Feb. 19, 2014

The city of Wauwatosa will repay $189,780.90 in property taxes collected over three years from the Target store at 3900 N. 124th St. under terms of a settlement agreement reached by the city and the retailer.

The Common Council approved the payment this week.

Of the total, the city's share will come to about $56,000, with the balance being repaid to the city by other taxing jurisdictions, including the Wauwatosa School District, City Attorney Alan Kesner said in an email.

You could call it another payday for Don Millis.

His expertise

Millis, a shareholder in Reinhart, Boerner, Van Deuren S.C. in Madison, is among the state's most active tax lawyers representing commercial property owners. He has gone to court dozens of times against Wauwatosa and other area municipalities, seeking to lower property assessments and property tax bills, and often winning thousands in monetary settlements.

In one case, he and a colleague won a property tax refund of $8.4 million for his client, Wheaton Franciscan Healthcare, in a case that went to the Wisconsin Supreme Court. Wheaton Franciscan had been taxed by the city for years as a for-profit entity, when a portion of it was ruled tax-exempt.

His client list reads like who's who of retail Wisconsin. It includes the state's 220 Walgreens stores, Sears and Kmart, Target, Macy's, and Mayfair Mall, among many other businesses, many of which are perennial tax appealers.

"I work for companies who have issues (with) either state or local government, in terms of taxes. That's my specialty," Millis said.

Back again and again

Millis is relentless on behalf of his clients, appealing assessments again and again, and occasionally motivating municipal governments to negotiate on property values. If a Walgreens is, in his view, overassessed, and he wins the appeal, he expects its assessment to be lowered, or he'll go back at it again.

"When we try to settle them, we try to settle them for the future years, so that we don't have to come back and all that," he said.

To settle them for the future years means that he, Don Millis, is making an agreement with a municipality on the future value of a building.

Though Millis has cost Wauwatosa a lot of money through the years, Kesner bears him no personal ill will.

"I don't want people doing what he's doing," Kesner said. But being an antagonist — "that's his job," the city attorney said.

A lot of cases

Millis said he picks and chooses his cases — but still he does a lot of them.

In any given season, he might take on 30 to 40 Walgreens valuations, and in recent years 18 of them have been in Milwaukee. He has gotten settlements on the properties, seen the assessments stay the same or rise the next year, and gone back at them. He's also targeted the four Walgreens in Wauwatosa.

One of his career highlights is successfully representing Walgreens in Walgreen Co. v. City of Madison, a major property tax case in 2008 decided by the Wisconsin Supreme Court. The court's decision resulted in lower valuations of Walgreens stores.

The Walgreens case "had statewide implications," said Kesner, addressing the Common Council.

"It has changed the way assessments are done and challenges are perceived in the courts right now," he said.

Generally, Kesner said, he perceives an increase in the number of cases brought, and "the magnitude with which they are pursued."

Tosa does OK

Millis said Wauwatosa probably wins most of the cases it's involved in — it recently prevailed in a case at the Court of Appeals against the company that owns Boston Store (not a Millis case) — and he hasn't seen the city adjust its assessments to avoid challenge, even after it has lost a case.

He also said he thought the city did "a marvelous job" in settling the Target case.

"It wasn't easy for them," he said, adding that a good compromise is one in which no one walks away happy.

Challenges like those brought by Millis have cost the city more than the money it pays to settle them. Kesner said fees for outside attorneys have run the city about $150,000 a year for the last three or four years.

He'll be back

Like him or not, Wauwatosa hasn't seen the last of Don Millis. Though his Target case for the tax years 2010 through 2012 has been settled, he's filed another appeal on the store's 2013 assessment. He's also represnting Mayfair Mall in a challenge of its assessment; he's also challenging the valuation on the Kmart store at 3201 Mayfair Road; and he represents Macy's on a case involving personal property taxes.

Other local cases include appeals by CVS Pharmacy, Dental Associates, and a series of related claims pertaining to property at 84th and Bluemound Road, where Bruegger's Bagels is located, Kesner said.

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