Yesterday morning I put on a little eyeliner with one of the most professional dresses hanging in my closet and wandered up to the Board of Revision on Court St. Last March I’d filed a complaint on the valuation of parcel 084-0003-0142-00, the 25 unit luxury apartment building owned by Western & Southern on E. Fourth. The Hamilton County Auditor showed a value of $2,527,080 and I asked for a revision to $6,500,000.
It didn’t take long for the three person board representing Hamilton County Auditor, Dusty Rhodes, County Commissioner, Greg Hartmann, and Hamilton County Treasurer, Robert A. Goering to turn me down flat, ruling to leave the value unchanged.
Now when I say “Fran Barrett beat Cincyopolis, fair and square” in all honesty I’m exercising a significant dollop of poetic licence. Because Mr. Barrett didn’t fight. He didn’t have to. After the conclusion of Western & Southern’s successful reduction on another one of their properties on Glenway Ave, I heard the Board chair ask him if he intended to stay for “whatever this next one is.”
Not a good sign.
One of the most consistently talented lawyers I’ve ever seen in action, Fran Barrett knew I didn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of winning before we even entered the room. I thought I could sway the Board with common sense. But he knew that this hearing was a legal proceeding with the burden of proof on the complainant. The Board is restricted to consideration of very specific forms of evidence: expensive professional appraisals that include comparable sales, highest and best usage, and income models. Apples with apples kind of stuff. They had to turn me down, even though I had worked very, very hard on all my sad little charts and spreadsheets.
So it was really a very generous gesture on Mr. Barrett’s part, one of the most powerful men in Cincinnati, to stay quietly seated, looking down at the desk top without ever saying a word. Eagle Realty even sent a small contingent of other suit-and-tie experts to sit in on the hearing. I would have been so disappointed if they hadn’t taken me seriously enough to even put on any semblance of a show.
I did succeed in eliciting at least one animated response from Fran Barrett during the proceedings. It was when I mentioned that the $6,500,000 I had requested was based on information from a Western & Southern employee as to the value used on the company’s internal books. “You have to tell me who told you that,” he repeated more than once in a tone of voice that clearly had no patience for amateur sleuthing or amateur anything else. The Board chair eventually had to step in and clarify that it wasn’t necessary for me to surrender the information as it was quite clear by that time that there was no danger of a ruling in my favor.
The good news about my twenty minutes of attention from the Board of Revision is that every single person who attended the hearing treated my concerns with respect and tried their best in the time allotted to explain the limitations of the valuation system and how these decisions are made. Susan Silver, Chief Administrator of the Auditor’s Department, even asked Terry Munz, an experienced veteran who heads valuations, to sit in and take notes.
Unfortunately, though the information they shared was extremely helpful, nothing they said did anything to change my mind that there is a systemic undervaluation of commercial real estate in the Central Business District, including this building. Once the value on a property is successfully lowered, unless there is an arms-length sale, there is no mechanism within the system to reconsider that valuation outside regular triennial and sexennial appraisals. This is primarily a batch-function subcontracted to outside professionals that involves every property in Hamilton County and precludes in-depth analysis of single properties. The reality is that it will be decades before the market conditions that attract so many out-of-state investors to our real estate market are reflected in any meaningful way in the Auditor’s valuations. And even if I could somehow find the money to pay for professional appraisals and the services of top-notch legal representation, I wouldn’t bet against Fran Barrett, would you? If by some miracle the Board adjusted the value upwards, he would have to take the decision to the Court of Appeals where a value would most likely be determined in a closed-door session with a magistrate.
Am I discouraged? A little. Having identified what I consider to be a serious problem, I was hoping citizens could take a more active role in drawing attention to undervalued properties. Alas, that is not to be.
But there was at least one consolation prize. After everything was over the team from Western & Southern lingered in the reception area to chat with Cincyopolis, all of them faithful readers of my blog. One of them remembered a post where I had apparently called Mr. Barrett “boring” – and I sheepishly admitted that I might possibly have used such an adjective. For the first time ever, even though we’ve both attended a wide variety of hearings together, that was the one and only time I’ve actually seen Fran Barrett smile.