County Board advances advisory referendum on 'dark stores'

JEFFERSON — The Jefferson County Board of Supervisors approved moving forward Monday with an advisory referendum that would address a perceived tax loophole for national and regional retail stores.

The referendum, which will go on the ballot for the Nov. 6 general election, reads:

“Should the state legislature enact proposed legislation that closes the ‘Dark Store’ property tax loophole, which currently allows a significant reduction in property tax assessment valuation of the commercial property of regional and national retail stores, which may result in increased property taxes for other tax-paying entities, such as residential home owners and other business entities, and/or cuts in essential services provided by an affected municipality?”

The final text of the question went through an amendment, and then an amendment of the amendment when the board met for its monthly session Monday night, altering wording to clarify the question, but not change its intent. The second amendment added “regional” to the question, making it “regional and national” stores.

“It clarifies that these are national chains taking advantage of this loophole,” said County Supervisor Kirk Lund, who presented the changes in the question.

The referendum addresses a current law that allows certain retail store values to be based on comparing them to nearby vacant or abandoned commercial buildings, according to the county board resolution. The argument presented is that since large retail stores follow a standard design unique to that retailer, a purchaser likely would have to make significant renovations to move in.

However, in presenting the argument against the “Dark Store” valuation process, the resolution stated that local governments object to the theory since it decreases revenue to the state, as well as increasing the local tax burden to other property owners.

There were not any real objections to the proposed referendum, though county Supervisor Dick Schultz did ask what the point might be in light of increased online shopping.

“For a lot of these companies, the stores are becoming outdated,” Schultz said. “Are we going to make this worse for these corporations?”

Fellow Supervisor Steven Nass said that he understood Schultz’s point, but “we aren’t doing anything to anybody.”

“It’s an advisory referendum,” Nass pointed out.

Supervisors Amy Rinard and Augie Tietz also voiced support, and the question received unanimous support among the 28 supervisors at the meeting.

In other action Monday, with the meeting being moved up a day because of Tuesday’s primary election, the county board:

• Approved a pair of Parks Committee resolutions to move forward with purchasing and installing a three-span pre-fabricated bridge along a 10.96-mile trail between Watertown and Oconomowoc over the Rock River. While the cost of the bridge is $174,300 and the cost of installation $439,900, the majority of the tab will be covered through private donations and grant monies.

Among the grants are a pair of $100,000 grants from the Greater Watertown Community Health Foundation.

The remaining cost — $37,500 each for the bridge and the installation — was budgeted for in the 2018 Jefferson County budget and wraps up several years of work to turn a former interurban rail line between Watertown and Oconomowoc into the recreational trail.


The low responsible bidder on the bridge was Anderson Bridge, while the low construction bid came from Kraemer North America LLC. Neither company is local.

• Approved a pair of resolutions and one proclamation coming from the Finance Committee.

The two resolutions included a budget amendment for the county’s Human Services Department for up to $48,000 to purchase a wheelchair-accessible van, and to deny a claim by Carl Braun that the county was responsible for damage to his 2006 Chevrolet Uplander while County Highway Y was under construction. The denial was at the recommendation of Wisconsin Municipal Mutual Insurance.

The proclamation was to declare August “Child Support Awareness Month.”

• Recognized outgoing Supervisor Alyssa Spaanem for her service.

• Heard annual reports.

the Highway Department, Fair Park, Human Services Department and District Attorney’s Office.

Among the highlights from the Fair Park presentation was the announcement that the Jefferson County Fair drew more than 40,000 visitors in spite of hot and humid conditions, plus a day when thunderstorms closed down the fair.