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Monday, March 27, 2017

Rick Singh says Orlando theme parks owe millions in taxes because they were never appraised correctly

Posted By on Mon, Mar 27, 2017 at 11:28 AM

  • Photo via Rick Singh/Facebook
Over the past two years, lawsuits against Orange County Property Appraiser Rick Singh's office have soared.

According to the Orlando Sentinel, last year saw 116 lawsuits, including ones from every major theme park company in the county. Universal, infamous for its "high crime" tax credits and agricultural exemptions, have now begun working with Disney and SeaWorld, all of which are fighting their property appraisals, to support the primary candidate running against Rick Singh.

And now the never-ending battle over how much taxes the theme parks and resorts should pay has made national news thanks to a recent AP article.

The main issue in the fight is Singh’s office appraising their property higher than the Property Appraiser’s office has in the past. In 2014, the office sent Disney World a tax bill of $84.5 million but by 2016 that had jumped to $102.6 million. Across town at Universal Studios, the parking garages jumped in market value from $148.6 million to $297 million according to Singh’s office.

During a recent interview regarding the AP article on the matter, Singh explained that the real issue here isn’t how high he values them now, but how low they were assessed before he took office.

“Let’s put things into historical perspective. I am the first state certified, qualified appraiser in the history of the Orange County office., said Singh to the Orlando Tourism Report. "I look at this with a professional appraiser’s eye. Perhaps it has never been looked at with the eyes of an appraiser. This office has been functioning in a level of what I consider to be unconscious incompetence. They didn’t know that they didn’t know. I’ll give you a great example; when the entire theme park of Magic Kingdom is assessed less than the Dr. Phillips Performing Arts Center, that’s a problem. The entire theme park, the land, and all the improvements. Picture that for a minute, and that speaks volumes.”

He goes on to explain the big difference over the past few years is bringing in staff that is trained in how to properly value things like theme parks and skyscrapers filled with timeshares.

“I brought on staff that is imminently qualified experts. I looked at this. It took me some time to do analysis. I was elected in 2012. This is an enormous office. Again, I say this is the most complex tax jurisdiction in the world. So, it took me awhile, a couple of cycles to really understand the problem that we have. And we looked at this and we made adjustments, brought on the necessary staff and the made the necessary adjustments.”

According to Singh, overall, the theme parks in Orange County have challenged over $8 billion in assessment and so far have only seen $215,000 returned despite numerous special hearings. He points to this success when he calls his office the number one property appraiser’s office in the state in accuracy and defense of assessments.

In the recent AP article covering the feud. Disney is quoted as saying “Similar to other property owners in Orange County, we have no choice but to take action to dispute these errors by the property appraiser.”

But Singh questions how many property owners are really in this fight. “We have got 450,000 parcels of property. We’ve got 68,000 businesses. Of those, all of them are assessed, said Singh to the Orlando Tourism Report. "How many of those have actually filed action? I’ll tell you who the largest per capita organization is. It’s Walt Disney World. You know, they are the largest filer of lawsuits. So, when they say they are sharing the concerns of other taxpayers in Orange County that’s a self-serving statement to really justify a waste of taxpayer dollars.”

Now, after years of fighting their increasing property values, the big tourism players in town look to be shifting their focus on booting Singh from office. The issue, according to Singh, isn’t what’s happening now but the long history of Central Florida allowing companies like Disney and Universal to get their way.

According to the AP, Disney, Universal, and SeaWorld have filed at least a dozen lawsuits in the past year alone regarding the increased value assessments. With construction being a consistent reality at the area theme parks and resorts the fight over what they should pay doesn’t look to be ending anytime soon.

These fights are nothing new.

Universal had a lengthy bout with Singh’s predecessor, who fought against them using cows on their undeveloped property in the tourist district to get a much cheaper agriculture classification. The difference now is, unlike that 2009 case where Universal fought and settled with Orange County giving them a $1.4 million tax refund, Singh doesn’t look to be backing down.

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