Court upholds $7.2 million in taxes on Clear Channel billboards

State law changed in 2014 to prohibit property tax on signs

Last updated on May 15th, 2019 at 04:58 pm

The city of Milwaukee scored a legal victory Tuesday when an appeals court upheld real estate tax assessments on billboards owned by Clear Channel Outdoor between 2009 and 2013.

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Clear Channel had paid around $7.2 million on the roughly 850 billboards it owns in the city, but challenged the real estate assessment as invalid.

State law has since changed to specifically exclude taxation of billboards as real estate property, but District I Court of Appeals judge Kitty Brennan noted the Legislature considered and rejected the retroactive application of the new law.

Clear Channel argued that the assessments were invalid because the permits did not fall under the definition of real property in state law. The city countered that although billboard permits were not expressly listed under the definition, they were consistent with the statutes.

The appeals court sided with the city, noting that state law requires general property to be taxed absent an exemption and Clear Channel didn’t argue an exemption existed. The court acknowledged billboards were unique and “do not neatly fit into the statutory definition,” but Brennan also pointed to previous cases that had found they were taxable.

The court also rejected constitutional arguments made by Clear Channel and sided with the city’s method of using GPS coordinates and valuations based on rent earned from advertisers.

Margaret Daun, an attorney representing Milwaukee in the case, said the city was hopeful Clear Channel and Lamar Advertising, which has similar claims still pending, would accept the decision “and stop requiring the City to expend more time and taxpayer resources to defend its legal assessments of billboard permits.”

“More broadly, the City remains troubled by the widespread efforts by many large corporate taxpayers to shift their tax burden to homeowners through successive and aggressive tax assessment lawsuits like these, as well as legislation,” she said in an email.

Attorneys for Clear Channel did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

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Arthur Thomas
Arthur covers manufacturing for BizTimes. He previously was managing editor at The Waukesha Freeman. He is a graduate of Carroll University and did graduate coursework at Marquette. A native of southeastern Wisconsin, he is also a nationally certified gymnastics judge and enjoys golf on the weekends.