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Omaha commercial property owners seek disaster relief for COVID-19

Published: Aug. 7, 2020 at 4:03 PM CDT
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OMAHA, Neb. (WOWT) - Some business owners in Douglas County believe their financial losses due to the COVID-19 pandemic should qualify them for a property tax break recently afforded to property damaged by natural disasters such as floods, tornadoes, or fire.

The property tax break comes on the heels of floodwaters that swept through the state causing major damage to homes, farms, and businesses, the damage was devastating.

Nebraska lawmakers passed a bill last year that would give a tax break to property owners, who’s homes and land were damaged due to floods or other natural disasters.

Property owners would have to fill out form 425 to request a property tax break.

Some property owners who lost money due to the COVID-19 pandemic are also looking for property tax relief.

“Let’s look at the different definitions in the statue of calamity. First, calamity means a disastrous event. I think we can all agree that COVID-19 is a disastrous event and it is based upon how it affects the assessed value of the property. It’s not limited to physical damage, it’s the assessed value of the property,” said Shaun James, attorney for commercial property owners.

Douglas County Assessor’s Office Compliance Officer Mike Goodwillie thinks differently.

“Not damage to the profitability of land or the profitability of the improvement, but damage to the land or damage to the improvement which implies physical damage that has not occurred here,” Goodwillie said.

The debate over the intent of the language in the bill went on for more than two hours. Was losing money because of the pandemic equal to losing property or having it damaged because of a natural disaster?

“What COVID is doing to commercial property owners, is it so negatively impacting their income ability because retailers have to close, restaurants had to close, bars had to close and most of those property owners had no way of knowing that was going to happen,” James said.

County officials said maybe the commercial property owners should wait until next year to look for COVID-19 related property tax relief.

“Come the end of this year when we start valuing and talking to people about values, we are going to be looking at the entire picture for 2020 going forward to 2021, not just a portion of the months. So we don’t have the picture and 2020 values were based on 2019 income streams,” said Douglas County Assessor Diane Battiato.

“I had a conversation with a hotel client and I explained to him the process. And I said if we’re going to try to get some relief on the 425, maybe we’ll get it in 2021, you’ll get relief down the road. And he said they’ll be out of business by then,” said Sean Mullen, an attorney for commercial property owners.

The Douglas County Board of Commissioners voted down the measure, with only Commissioner P.J. Morgan voting in favor.

Attorneys representing the commercial property owners plan to appeal the decision.

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