Tag Archives: Board of Revision

wtf? Fran Barrett beat Cincyopolis, fair and square

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.

wtf? 9/23/2015: Today We Ask the Board of Revision to Go on Record


I started the wtf? series to highlight Hamilton County property valuations that didn’t make any sense to me..  Readers found my examples interesting, but eventually people wanted a more thorough statistical analysis for purposes of comparison.  “Have you looked at properties in Price Hill?” a journalist asked.  “Can you provide a complete list of parcels so we can judge for ourselves?” someone else suggested.

But I’m not a professional anything.  I’m just an amateur working alone – and easily overwhelmed by the amount of data included in the Auditor’s records.  I have no idea how to put together a valid study to accurately reflect the trends in property valuations across the city.  While there seem to be systemic under-valuations on many of Cincinnati’s most expensive buildings, I don’t have the expertise to manipulate the Auditor’s files even though they gave me complete access to their database.

So I decided to ask Hamilton County’s recognized experts to at least go on record and explain their valuation on a single building: the building that sparked my curiosity about the logic behind their numbers.  Last winter I filed a citizen’s complaint on Western & Southern’s 25 unit luxury apartments at 516 E. Fourth St. where the BOR lowered the value from $4,489,000 to $2,800,000 in 2003. In spite of the short supply of apartments in the City Center, the most successful condo project ever completed in the CBD directly across the street (2006-2007) and the highly successful Residence Inn at the Phelps (2011) on the other side of the property, the value of 516 E. Fourth is now less than the Board of Revision assessment in 2003: $2,527,080 – and the land value has been almost cut in half.

Here’s the per square foot value of my building, Park Place at Lytle across the street at 400 Pike St. compared to the per square foot value at 516 E. Fourth:

image (24)

My hearing is this morning at 9:15 am.  I can’t wait to hear what the experts have to say.

Wish me luck.

wtf? Hamilton County Auditor (9300 Shawnee Run, Indian Hill)


wtf? was originally designed as a series of posts dedicated to holding a spotlight on the mysterious and un-explainable decisions of the Hamilton County Board of Revision – but it turns out that the entire valuation process is mysterious and un-explainable.  wtf? is now about any and all things property-tax-related that make no sense whatsoever.

According to the Hamilton County Auditor’s records, this is the official image of John F. Barrett’s house in Indian Hill.  That’s right.  John F. Barrett, CEO and head honcho of one of the founding families of Western & Southern, a company with 4.8 billion in annual sales.

This picture does not match-up with the statistics in the listing that describe it as a 6,551 square foot,15-room home built in 1939 with 7 bedrooms, 6 fireplaces, 6 full baths, and one half bath sitting on a little less than 19 acres of prime land in the middle of Greater Cincinnati’s swankiest neighborhood. Nor does it match-up with the opinion of professional appraisers that value Mr. Barrett’s estate at $1,235,010. (Note: It would be worth over $2.6 million if not for the fact that it is valued on a CAUV basis:  Current Agricultural Use Value, a classification reserved for grain or general farms.)

The owner did challenge the valuation with the Board of Revision in 2001 when the appraised value was $2,145,900, asking for a reduction to $1,471,400.  However the Board took a stern stance and only brought it down to $1,475,000 –  almost a quarter of a million dollars MORE than it’s property-tax generating value to Hamilton County ever since it turned into a farming operation.

Yet the mysteries do not stop here.  Take a look at the “Value History” tab and there’s an entry dated 9/27/2011 that indicates “new construction full value” of $826,280 in improvements to the property.  This matches up with a little gossip I picked up from a classy friend of mine who moves in Indian Hill social circles.  You know how some people have guest houses?  Apparently Mr. Barrett has a guest mansion, complete with a garage that houses not just one, but two fully restored antique Rolls Royces in mint condition.

Maybe a peak at Google Maps will clarify some of these issues:

Screenshot 2014-12-01 07.36.06

If you pull this up on your own screen, you can clearly see the long driveway that connects two mansions and continues on to the pool house.  There is no other street or separate parcel in the vicinity that could account for the complete absence of the guest mansion for property tax purposes.   If crops are being grown here, Mr. Barrett was not out on his tractor when this satellite photo was taken.

Please also note the 70 acres of undeveloped property next door at 9420 Shawnee Run owned by Shawnee Farms LLC.  According to the Ohio Secretary of State business search, Shawnee Farms LLC is owned by John F. Barrett.  This property is also classified on a CAUV basis as a non-commercial timber operation, bringing the land value from over $4,000,000 to $371,000 for property tax purposes.

This is as wrong as anything I’ve ever seen in my life according to commonly accepted cultural values my parents taught me.  It isn’t a little off, a small oversight or difference of opinion, but outright deception.  Public officials we elect to act as fiduciaries for our community have to be complicit in this level of special treatment for the wealthiest among us. I don’t know what else to say – except wtf?  That our society has come to this level of confusion about what’s important in life and our responsibility to each other makes me want to cry.

Postscript from Facebook post:

  • A. Maris Bernard Hmmmm … Who actually is on the board of revisions? Friends of John?
  • Kathy Holwadel Representatives of Dusty Rhodes, Chris Monzel, and Robert Goering serve on the Board. But this goes beyond the Board of Revision. They are not responsible for classifying this property as farmland. This is an appraisal issue. That’s even scarier.
    More accurate photo of property found by a reader on the County Auditor’s site:
    more accurate

wtf? Board of Revision (2629 Ashland Ave. Walnut Hills)

  2629 Ashland

wtf? is a series of posts dedicated to holding a spotlight on the mysterious and un-explainable decisions of the Hamilton County Board of Revision

Based on a tip from an astute reader, today we venture outside the city center to Ashland Avenue in Walnut Hills.  While analysis has previously focused on expensive commercial properties, it turns out the Board has also made puzzling decisions regarding modest residential properties as well.

The 9 room, 2,163 square foot house with two full baths at 2629 Ashland was valued at $52,180 during the last reappraisal in 2011.  Held by the same owner since 1990, in 2013 it was sold to a church-owned development company for $2,000 who sold it to a renter for the same amount they paid.  On August 15, 2013 a complaint was filed with the Board of Revision, asking for a reduction in value to the sale amount, which was granted   When I asked Susan Silver, chief of administration for the Hamilton County Auditor, for a recording of the hearing, she explained there had never been one.

“This matter was an “expedited hearing” meaning the complainant received a letter from the Board of Revision, after our staff appraiser reviewed the complaint and information available to him about the property, indicating the Auditor’s Real Estate Department agreed with the complainant that the subject property’s “sale price best represents the fair market value for the parcel and will recommend this to the Board of Revision on the hearing date.”  In “expedited” cases, the complainant need not come in unless he/she wishes to do so. . . .On the particular case/parcel you have asked about, the complainant does not seem to have appeared (based on the record) and no questions or concerns were raised.  The $2000 proposed value was approved by the Board.”

Is that fair to the next door neighbors at 2627 Ashland whose house is valued for $54,780, $7,370 of which is for the land (as opposed to a $500 land value on 2629 Ashland).  Or the owners of the condos in the old public school across the street that sold for $134,000 – $197,000?.

The problem that brought attention to the valuation issue is the current less-than-stellar owner.  On an otherwise quiet street of nice families, this house has become an eyesore with a lot of unexplained comings and goings in the middle of the night that appear to be drug-related.  When the Board of Revision reduced the property tax liability to almost nothing, they made sure this house was so ridiculously affordable that the one bad apple on the street will probably stay there forever, ruining the neighborhood for the hard working families who are paying their fair share of taxes.

wtf? Hamilton County Board of Revision: the real cost of 30-year abatement

Yesterday’s post on the 20-story office tower at 1 E. Fourth St. followed the building from a value of $24,240,000 in August of 2010 to a board decision of $19,250,000, followed by a further unexplained reduction to $16,000,000 just three months later.

But that’s not the shocker.

Because in the end, the disappearing $3,000,000 doesn’t even matter.  Less than two years later, the owner files yet another complaint, this time asking for a reduction from $16,000,000 to $7,400,000.  And guess what? The owner’s not crazy.  Nobody laughs them out of the hearing room or suggests they are filing frivolous complaints.   Because they aren’t.   The market for commercial office space in Cincinnati’s central business district has gone into a tail spin totally unanticipated just 20 months earlier.  The upscale building on the corner of Fourth & Vine that was 100% occupied with above average rents and profitability, now has a 50% vacancy rate, been forced to renegotiate the lease  with their biggest remaining tenant to lower the rent, has to invest millions in upgrades, and is struggling just to cover costs, much less make any money at all, even if they do find new tenants. And it has absolutely nothing to do with mortgage-backed securities or the recession.

What happened?

Queen City Square, the Great American Tower  That’s what happened.  Over a million square feet of pristine, Class A office space opened for business in January of 2011, shuffling tenants from 6 other buildings in the Central Business District and spiking the vacancy rate on Class A space to over 20% – where it stubbornly remains to this day, including 10% of their own building and all the still-unoccupied street-level retail where John Barrett waxes poetic about attracting a fancy French restaurant someday.

Queen City Square, the Great American Tower, the same building the Port Authority, an agency of the City of Cincinnati issued $54,000,000 of bonds to pay for the parking garage, lobby and front plaza.  Money that we will never get back – but will continue to pay back for 28 1/2 more years, long after the building has been sold and Western & Southern has pocketed any profits.

Queen City Square, the same building we awarded a 30-year tax abatement on 100% of the improved value, almost $200,000,000 if the building remains at the same value for that period.  (Real wonks who are interested in a complete list of estimated financial benefits to Western & Southern on this development can check out A Grand Slam for Western & Southern.)

The shocker is that during hearing number 2 on Parcel #083-0001-0097-00 on June 26, 2012, we not only hear about the new financial reality for 1 E. Fourth Street.  This new giant office tower has negatively impacted all the commercial office space in the central business district.

Over and over again throughout the second hearing – which this time lasted over an hour and a half as board members tried to get their heads around the new reality of commercial real estate in Cincinnati – witnesses made reference to all the other buildings experiencing the same challenges. Everybody seemed particularly worried about the 580 Building, wiped out and desperate with a 100% vacancy rate, the same building that is now being converted into 176 residential units.

Which is great.  Residents are much more reliable than commercial tenants who can be lured away with tax credits and abatement, the kind of consumers who eat in all our new restaurants at night, go to plays, ride our streetcar and get annual passes for the Red Bike program.

But remember, we had to give the 580 Building a 12 year tax credit in order to make the transition. Yep.  We lost the property taxes we had been collecting on the property and then had to make a deal to give up everything for the next twelve.  It’s a ripple effect, with negative consequences that impact local governments for at least a decade in a very big way.   The value of all the commercial buildings has plunged since Queen City Square opened for business, reflecting the reality of higher vacancy rates and resulting in property tax reductions that hurt our schools, parks and basic services.  When we give huge financial incentives to build commercial office space based on vague hopes of attracting new corporations, the short term financial impact on the citizens of this community who are paying taxes is disastrous.

It sounds so easy in theory doesn’t it?  New office towers result in lease upgrades which result in residential conversion of Class B and Class C space.  Density.  Hooray! Which is all true from a perspective of decades.  But the short-term consequences of subsidizing more office space than the market can absorb for one favored developer is painful and very, very expensive. Before we make any more 30-year bets on big speculations, let’s ask ourselves long and hard if it’s really worth what it costs.  At least with the GE deal we had 2,000 new jobs in hand before we signed off on our future.

wtf? How can land values drop by 20% in CBD since 1996?

wtf? is a series of posts dedicated to holding a spotlight on the mysterious and un-explainable decisions of the Hamilton County Board of Revision.  But attentive readers might well ask themselves, “Is that woman just focusing attention on the titillating examples?”  How do we determine the difference between a few rotten apples and a chronic problem that needs to be fixed ASAP?
Let’s take a walk down east 4th St. and study the official numbers from the Hamilton County Auditor’s site.    We included everything except 18 E. Fourth which has been converted to condos and is abated and the new Renaissance Hotel a little further up the street, also abated.  For both of these we need more information from the Auditor as they involve multiple owners in a single building (Bartlett Buildings was office condos before it became a hotel)
Notice my use of the term “we”.  This is not my work, but that of another citizen who wants to help and prefers to remain anonymous. However I don’t think he would mind if I shared two pertinent facts.
1.  Our anonymous volunteer has not just one, but 2 Bachelor’s degrees from an accredited university:  A degree in sociology AND a degree in political science.
2.  He is familiar with the basics of excel spreadsheets and is not afraid to use them.
Here are the conclusions reached by Anonymous, followed by his pretty blue charts:
As has been the case, we see land value per acre decrease 20% on average from 1996 to today. If you can find somebody to logically explain why land values in a stretch of the central business district of a thriving city have decreased from $6.1M per acre to $4.8M per acre I would be impressed.
Furthermore, the total value of these properties has decreased by an average of 25% from 1996 and 18% from the most recent recorded valuation. What that tells me is that the valuation decline is a more recent phenomenon (which we already knew).
(Click on either table for larger size and greater clarity.)
total value

land value

wtf? Board of Revision Brackett Village 1308-1334 Walnut

bracket Village

Western & Southern often points with pride to Brackett Village as proof of their good corporate citizenship.

CEO John Barrett recently repeated the claim to a crowd at Tuesday’s Association for Corporate Growth luncheon stating that Western & Southern took the lead in redeveloping Over-the-Rhine building a 120-unit residential building on Walnut Street.

Completed in 1994, the property received a 15-year Community Redevelopment Tax Abatement that exempted them from paying property taxes on the new construction until 2008.  Just before the abatement expired, the value of the apartments was $1,076,200.  The year Western & Southern started to pay property taxes, they filed a complaint with the Hamilton County Board of Revision and the value was immediately reduced to $331,000, $2,758 per apartment or less than $14 a square foot and a 69.24% reduction in value.

An inside source has told me the company values the building at $5,000,000 internally.

This pattern is similar in every single property Western & Southern owns in the city center.  And they own a lot of them.