Assessor Larry Stone Challenges Administrative Decision Slashing the 49ers’ Property Taxes.
Today, Santa Clara Assessor Larry Stone brought a legal challenge to a property tax decision by an independent assessment appeals board, asking the court to reverse the board’s unprecedented, 50 percent reduction of the 49ers’ property taxes for Levi’s Stadium. .
“This decision must not be allowed to stand,” Stone said. “As assessor, I have always been committed to ensuring the property tax roll accurately reflects the value of the property being assessed. Here, the board failed to perform its core responsibility to carefully calculate the full value of the 49ers’ rights in the Stadium.”
The San Francisco 49ers’ operating company, “Stadco,” rents the stadium from a public entity, the Santa Clara Stadium Authority, and the 49ers are required by law to pay taxes on the full value of its interest in the property. As part of a unique public-private partnership, the stadium was custom built for professional football, but also hosts other events, such as corporate events and concerts, when it is not needed by the 49ers. The board’s decision incorrectly finds that the parties intended to split the valuable rights in the stadium 50-50 between public and private entities—despite the fact that the lion’s share of the stadium’s value lies in professional football uses for which it was custom-designed.
“This decision sets a troubling precedent that is legally incorrect and must be reversed,” said Santa Clara County Counsel James R. Williams, who filed the litigation on behalf of Stone. “Communities spend hundreds of millions of dollars to build stadiums to attract professional sports teams. But when the owners of these teams fail to pay their fair share of property taxes, they are taking away money from local schools, police and firefighters, and other valuable services that our communities need.”
“The Assessment Appeals Board decision resulted in a one-time refund of over $36 million, and an estimated on-going annual property tax reduction of $6 million. The Santa Clara Unified School District absorbed the greatest reduction of over $13 million. The agencies affected also include the West Valley Community College (over $3 million), the City of Santa Clara (about $3 million), and the Santa Clara County general fund (over $5 million). Several other public agencies refunded the balance.
Stone also points out that the decision fails to assign monetary value to the 49ers’ year-round, exclusive rights to valuable portions of the facility, including a large restaurant complex, state-of-the-art team museum, team store, private clubs, and audio-visual hub. The public authority retains no comparable rights or control over the events hosted at the stadium.
“The board’s decision ignores many of the 49ers’ valuable rights and instead simply splits the value of the stadium exactly in half between the 49ers and the public authority—a position for which neither side argued, that no data supported, and that no lawful valuation method can justify,” Stone explained.
Private property rights in otherwise tax-exempt public property are known as taxable possessory interests. Taxation of these interests places the possessor on equal footing with tenants who pay a pro-rata share of the private property owners’ taxes.
The writ petition, filed in Superior Court by the Santa Clara County Counsel on behalf of the Assessor in the matter of Lawrence E. Stone, Santa Clara County Assessor v. Santa Clara County Assessment Appeals Board No. 1, asks the court to send the matter back to the board with instructions to use a method reasonably calculated to capture the full value of the 49ers’ possessory interest. Both Stone and the board are required by California’s constitution to tax all properties at their full value.
“The assessment appeals board members do not always agree with my staff on the assessments, but most of the time when they disagree, we are close. During the past 24 years, over 90% of the contested assessed value or value at risk has been sustained. Last year it was 97%. A 50% reduction for a single appeal is completely out of the ordinary. In my opinion, the administrative body reached the wrong conclusion,” said Stone.