The Michigan Tax Tribunal’s practice of “dark store assessing” is the subject of a new documentary produced by Northern Michigan University students and a faculty member. The premiere of “BOXED IN” is scheduled at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 24, at Peter White Public Library, with a reception to follow. The film will also air on WNMU-TV at 8 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 1. It may gain additional exposure throughout the state, given the widespread impact of the tax-saving practice.
Some major retailers have successfully argued that their valuations should be compared to older big-box stores elsewhere in Michigan that closed and remain vacant. While their property taxes have been slashed as a result, townships are left with significant revenue gaps in their budgets.
Professor Dwight Brady’s advanced multimedia journalism class began tackling the documentary last semester. Because of the depth and breadth of the issue, the work spilled over to summer, with additional interviews and editing. Brady and several students spent four days downstate and used Lansing as their home base.
“It was really neat to see how excited the students were to shoot footage during some of the House and Senate sessions and to conduct interviews with state reps and other high-profile members of government,” Brady said. “We did our best to gather input from both sides because it’s an investigative journalism piece. We interviewed Steven Lasher, the current chief judge of the tribunal. He said he feels some empathy for townships, but they are outgunned legally and he has to make a decision based on the evidence put before him.
“We also interviewed regional government officials, local small business owners and the director of the Marquette Chamber. This is an important issue that’s gone beyond big-box stores to other businesses and even homeowners eager to save money. Everyone has a right to appeal their tax bill, but the team with a high-priced law firm behind it stands a better chance of winning.”
AnnMarie Kent, a multimedia journalism major from Traverse City, said she relished the opportunity to dig into a timely and relevant topic.
“The education I received was priceless,” Kent said. “This project gave me an opportunity to do journalistic work inside and around the state Capitol. We had to pack so many interviews into those days. This is such a complicated topic and might not interest many people, but it affects communities across the state. The documentary is important to inform the public and bring to light this issue. Not only was it a great experience to put on a resume to show my different skill sets, but I was also able to meet several people in the broadcasting business.”
Students Michael Williams and Katlyn Fleis also traveled to Lansing. They had started working on an independent documentary about the same topic and Brady recruited them to collaborate with his team. Students used “Go Fund Me” pages to raise their own support for travel expenses and Brady secured a small NMU Service Learning Grant to pay for recording and storage media.
U.P. lawmakers have formed a unified front against the “dark store” appeals and several bills have been introduced in the House and Senate to deal with the practice. House Bill 5578, introduced in April by Rep. David Maturen of downstate Brady Township, was the first to pass one legislative body and may be taken up by the Senate this fall.
“Lawyers for the big-box stores have been able to argue that the properties are deed restricted and, because they can’t possibly sell them, they should be valued as if they’re empty,” Brady said. “This bill would remove the deed restrictions and change the legal argument, but it may not be enough to stop it.
“It doesn’t go nearly as far as legislation in Indiana. They shot down the dark store strategy within four months after Meijer went down there and got a tax break on a store. In Michigan, the state reimburses the schools as mandated by the School Aid Act. This process of reimbursing schools for lost revenue from local taxes due to dark store rulings by the Michigan Tax Tribunal could create a fairly sizable drain on the state budget because these tax cuts will remain intact for nearly 30 years under Proposal A. The impact of this goes deep.”
Brady said he is hopeful that the documentary will be viewed statewide, similar to previous projects he led on wolves and the green energy economy. The trailer can be viewed at https://youtu.be/IMCJ1SqJXqw.