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Plummeting commercial real estate values prompted by the shift to remote work are causing a trickle-down financial crunch on cities, schools, park districts and other public operations that depend on tax collections.

The reason: more commercial property taxes are going unpaid than at any time since the Great Recession of 2008-09.

Minneapolis, for example, typically collects around 99% of taxes levied. But by the third quarter of 2023, just 97.5% of taxes levied had been collected — leaving $11 million in unpaid taxes.

Some public bodies, like the city, rely less heavily on property taxes to fund operations, so the immediate impact is less severe. But the tax-collection drop is a major hit for the Park Board, which ended the year with a $1.9 million difference between taxes levied and those actually collected. The board depends on property taxes to finance almost 80% of its general fund — and might be a harbinger of what can happen when collections fall short of expectations.

"This is a big reality check," said Park Board President Meg Forney, who noted the revenue loss comes as the Park Board is working on major capital projects and in negotiations with union park workers looking for higher pay. "So heads up everybody, roll up your sleeves, because we have a big lift here."

For Minneapolis Public Schools, which is already facing financial challenges as a result of declining enrollment, property taxes represent one-fifth of its operating budget. A 1% decline in its collection rate would be a loss of roughly $1.5 million, said Donnie Belcher, the district's executive director of marketing and communications. At last year's collection rate, then, MPS is down nearly $3.5 million in tax revenue.

Top delinquent taxpayers

While tax delinquencies are an immediate issue for local entities like the Park Board, the steep and steady decline in commercial property values is a longer-term problem because delinquent taxes are a first-priority lien — meaning they receive payment ahead of other debtors even in the case of a foreclosure on a building.

Tax revenue lost to declining values is likely to be a much bigger problem for municipal coffers. Already, the value of many commercial buildings in Hennepin County has been falling — by double digits in some cases, siphoning tens of millions in tax revenue from state and local budgets.

In downtown Minneapolis, the owners of the IDS Center saw its value fall about $62 million in three years after peaking at $319 million in 2020. The value of the tower, which is current on its property taxes, is only slightly more than what a Florida-based investor paid for the building a decade ago.

Many office owners are already in a precarious position as they struggle to make loan payments and pay taxes on buildings that are no longer worth what they paid for them. Many refinanced their loans on the eve of the pandemic when values peaked and interest rates were at record lows, and now many are coming due again.

Trouble is, values are down significantly and lending rates are higher, causing a growing number of borrowers to default on their loans — and leaving lenders to decide whether to foreclose or buy time with a modification to the loan terms.

That's what happened recently after the loan came due on the IDS, raising the prospect of foreclosure on the region's tallest and most iconic office building. After months of negotiations, the owners of the building were recently able to modify the terms of its loan, averting a crisis for building owners, tenants and the city.

A deepening glut of office space is to blame. Office vacancies across the metro rose to a record 13.6% at the end of last year, according to a new report from Colliers. For most of the pandemic, downtown Minneapolis was the epicenter of the problem, but the financial pain is spreading, especially into the southern suburbs. At the end of last year, the office vacancy rate along the Interstate 494 corridor eclipsed downtown Minneapolis.

Bloomington's Normandale Lakes Office Park — the largest office complex in the metro — amassed the highest amount of delinquent taxes in Hennepin County last year. In 2023, its owner, New York-based Opal Holdings, owes several million in unpaid property taxes, not including penalties and interest, just a year after buying the property.

The second-largest suburban property behind on taxes is the Huntington Place apartment complex in Brooklyn Park, which owes nearly $383,000 and has been penalized $42,700. It is a 55-year-old building with perennial problems of crime and blight, and leads the county in evictions. The affordable housing provider Aeon purchased the complex in 2020, and last spring the city of Brooklyn Park stepped in to monitor stabilization efforts.

Aeon CEO Eric Anthony Johnson said hiring private security, installing a checkpoint and evicting gang elements have all been working to calm the complex down — but at a cost.

"We prioritized our spending on safety, and not the taxes," Johnson said. "We are preparing to pay the taxes, and we will pay our taxes, but we wanted to make sure that in no way, shape or form Huntington was being viewed as a place that was unsafe."

To cope with financial stress, many property owners have proactively appealed their assessments, even as property values slide. According to the Minneapolis assessor's office, the number of downtown Minneapolis parcels with a property tax appeal peaked at 358 in 2020. As of July 2023, there were 269 commercial parcels with an appeal, nearly twice the number of residential parcels.

Through the past couple years, Target Corp. has shaved tens of millions of dollars in value off several of its office buildings by appealing its assessments, according to court records.

The city's top 10 delinquent properties by late 2023 included Tri-Tech Plaza and LaSalle Plaza, which also has a pending tax appeal. Five railroad properties owned by Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF), a Dinkytown commercial building and two downtown residential high-rises — the Centre Village parking ramp and the East End apartments — are also on the list.

BNSF did not respond to requests for comment, but its financial statements from the third quarter of 2023 said the company's net income had decreased 17% from the year prior because of declining volumes of all products that it transports.

A bigger burden

When Park Board Finance Director Juli Wiseman shared the tax collection news at the Park Board's first meeting of the year, she wasn't yet sure where the Park Board might get the $1.3 million needed just to reach its minimum general fund balance requirement. The semi-autonomous park and recreation agency has asked the city if it could spare any more of its COVID relief money, but Minneapolis had already spent or allocated all of its funding.

When property tax collections last dropped this low nearly 20 years ago, the Park Board had to borrow from its general fund balance to offset reductions in state aid. The board had to make "operational cuts," Wiseman said, including reduced services, eliminated staff positions and deferred construction projects.

As the commercial real estate sector diminishes, more of the region's tax burden will shift to homeowners and renters. When that happens, the lowest-income communities typically see the biggest percentage increase on their tax bills.

"If the businesses are not paying, and [taxes] get shifted to the industrial properties or residential property, it's not a good thing for residents, homeowners," Minneapolis Chief Financial Officer Dushani Dye said. "The city and the county, we have to collect our property tax no matter what. That's the unfortunate part about the commercial sector dipping."

Correction: A previous version of this story identified the wrong section of the Center Village development.