Joe Antonucci joined tens of thousands of Minnesotans who prepaid their property taxes in late December, hoping to deduct the payment from their federal taxes one last time before the benefit vanishes.
Statewide, property owners like Antonucci made a collective gamble totaling approximately $400 million in early payments. Two months later, Antonucci finds it hard to believe the state Department of Revenue and Internal Revenue Service still haven’t determined if the taxpayers are entitled to the potential tax savings.
“Each side is playing a game of pointing fingers at each other,” said Antonucci, who owns a real estate consulting firm and prepaid $6,600 in property taxes. He believes the state is responsible for the final decision. “This is a big deal. If it fails, people are going to march with pitchforks and torches to the governor’s residence.”
Some taxpayers across the country were left scrambling after the tax law passed late last year by Congress and signed by President Donald Trump imposed new limits on the federal deduction for state and local taxes. A late December decision by the IRS appears to greatly reduce the prepayment benefit and only added to the confusion.
Minnesota revenue department officials contacted the IRS last week, reiterating their stance that the decision rests entirely with the federal agency, said department spokesman Ryan Brown.
“The IRS has not yet made a determination on this particular issue for Minnesota, but we will continue to reach out to them for clarity,” he said.
Several financial experts have no doubt the property taxes paid in 2017 are tax deductible, despite the advisory from the IRS that appears to contradict those opinions. The IRS stated that prepayment of future property taxes that have not yet been assessed are not deductible on a 2017 return.
State or local law determines when a property tax is assessed, which is generally when the taxpayer becomes liable for the property tax imposed, IRS spokeswoman Sarah Allen said last week. Allen would not say the agency was even going to issue a ruling.
Minnesota taxpayers weren’t alone in trying to maximize their tax break. The nationwide scramble to pay taxes lasted two weeks after the new tax law capped the annual state and local tax deduction at $10,000 on Jan. 1.
Ramsey and Anoka counties combined for $54 million in advance taxes.
Hennepin County set up a temporary service center, extended hours for payment and collected $198 million in prepaid taxes, more than 30 times what was paid in 2016.
For some Hennepin County taxpayers, the deduction benefit is significant. The Life Time fitness health club in Eden Prairie paid $639,267.86, the county’s top prepayment. Other large payers include the owners of apartment buildings in Minneapolis and Minnetonka, Highland Bank in Bloomington and lake homeowners in Shorewood and Wayzata.
Although each of the state’s 87 counties received an unexpected bonus in their coffers, it won’t translate into a lot of extra money to spend. According to state law, the counties only collect the taxes and then distribute them to agencies such as the Metropolitan Council and school, city and special tax districts, said Hennepin County Administrator David Hough. The county does expect to gain about $1.3 million in interest on the money before it’s handed out in May.
A day or two after the tax measure passed in Congress, Geno Fragnito’s telephone started ringing off the hook. Not surprising for the director of government relations of the Minnesota Society of CPAs.
While there is still some division over the issue, he said the significant majority of accountants he has talked to feel the prepayments will be deductible. An argument he’s heard is that prepayments haven’t been disallowed in the past.
“When you add up all the money that was prepaid, that means a lot of Minnesotans will be affected,” said Fragnito. “That’s a lot of constituents who could be unhappy. There may be some pressure and backlash at the state and federal level to back up and make a correction.”
The tax law was a hot topic on accountant online discussion boards. Fragnito’s society has been pushing the Revenue Department for a decision, but it’s been told the department didn’t have enough information to make a determination.
“It’s hard to understand without knowing the inner workings of the department,” he said. “If the statute is related to taxation in Minnesota, they should have the capacity to answer the question and provide guidance. I’m not sure what the hesitation is.”
Accountants are frustrated because they want to convey accurate information to their customers, said Fragnito. The CPAs don’t want to come back to clients in two months and say the deduction isn’t allowed, he said.
He fears that thousands of people may file for an extension on April 15 because of the confusion over the deduction question. He’s also concerned that indecision over the issue will lead to a court battle.
Doug McDonald, a partner in the accounting firm of Abdo, Eick & Meyers, said his office was careful to advise people to take the deduction “where it made sense.” One client told him he had received a newsletter stating that the prepayment wasn’t going to be deductible.
“We chose to ignore it. We did our own research,” he said. “Every state is different in how they access property taxes. Ultimately, it’s either a win because you get the deduction or you just end up paying your taxes and don’t lose any money.”
And so, people like Antonucci, owner of the commercial real estate consulting firm Landmark Partners, wait for a definitive answer. His clients expect him to know what’s going on. That’s why he personally filed for the deduction, and “I guess I will just wait to get audited,” he said.
In a state known for high taxes, he said, the new federal tax bill “put a stake in the heart of Minnesotans.”
“You wonder why people run to Florida,” he said. “It’s not just because of the warmth. The state better come through. And I fully expect they will.”
Whatever the IRS or the state rule on the prepaid taxes, it won’t affect how counties calculate the year’s property tax bills. Since the prepayment of 2018 taxes was based on an estimated tax, each county will “true up” the taxpayers’ accounts that made prepayments by early March, said Mark Chapin, Hennepin County auditor and treasurer.
If people overpaid, they will receive a refund, he said. If they underpaid, they will receive a bill for that amount.