Donald Trump has aggressively challenged and won reductions in property tax bills on his elite golf courses — and then boasted as a presidential candidate that several of those same courses are worth tens of millions more than his staff argued to county assessors.
His maneuvers to contain tax increases have posed fiscal repercussions for county and local governments, including Miami-Dade County, home of the prized Trump National Doral resort that he bought in 2012.
Nowhere has the conflict between the tax assessments on Trump’s properties and his claims of soaring value been more apparent than in Ossining, New York, where his lawyers argued to the city assessor that his Westchester County golf club was worth $1.4 million in 2015, less than a tenth of its appraised value. On the financial disclosure statement that presidential candidates are required to file, Trump valued it last May at more than $50 million. The city assessor’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
“You can’t say it’s worth $50 million and then say it’s worth a million and a half,” said Lawrence Hirsh, founder of Pennsylvania-based Golf Property Analysts and a former president of the Society of Golf Appraisers. “Are there many golf properties out there that are worth $50 million? I haven’t seen many, and I have appraised as many as anybody.”
It’s common for commercial real estate operators to do battle with county tax assessors to hold down costs. What makes Trump unusual is that — as the Republican presidential candidate — he has bragged about how much money his resorts make and how he fights “very hard to pay as little tax as possible.”
In financial disclosures, Trump suggests that the National Doral is the most lucrative property in his golf portfolio. Trump bought the resort and professional golf tour venue — with its huge spa and 650 guest suites — for $150 million through a 2012 bankruptcy. He pledged to invest another $250 million to restore its luster.
When Trump closed the deal, the Miami-Dade County appraisers had proposed to value the nearly 800-acre property at $106.8 million. A lawyer for Trump promptly disputed the assessment, and the tax value was reduced by $19 million. It declined to $69 million after repeated Trump challenges since 2012.
Last year, the appraisal rose to $98.3 million — still nearly $9 million less than appraisers thought the resort was worth before Trump bought and transformed it.
The resort is the second-largest taxpayer in the city of Doral. It’s difficult to calculate just how much tax money Trump’s annual challenges have cost the county and the city. But if the property had been valued at $90 million each year from 2013 through 2015, for example, his property tax payments of $2.8 million for those years would have jumped by more than $760,000. If the taxable value had been $125 million to $150 million, he would have paid millions more.
Sandra Ruiz, a Doral City Council member who is running for mayor, charged that Trump has preyed on the town, costing tax revenue even while offending its residents with racially charged remarks about Hispanics. She says she will propose a resolution seeking a reappraisal.
“We thought that his name and his brand, and the words that we heard . . . (that) he would actually redevelop and bring greater value to the property and as a result traditional benefits to the city of Doral,” Ruiz said in an interview. “That has not been the case. We have lost more than we have gained.”
“It’s time that Donald Trump pays his fair share.”
Up to $400 million Amount Donald Trump said he’d invest in the Doral resort, now valued by tax appraisers at $98.3 million
Outside the nation’s capital, officials in Loudoun County, Virginia, declined to say whether Trump’s representatives have challenged the value of his Trump National Golf Club-Washington, D.C. The county assessed the property at $23.7 million for 2015, though Trump said on his financial statement that it was worth more than $50 million.
In 2013, Trump bought a country club north of Charlotte, North Carolina – a property appraised in 2010 at $27 million – for $6 million. He devoted as much as $10 million to restoring it. After his organization’s appeals, the Iredell County, North Carolina, tax assessor last valued the course overlooking picturesque Lake Norman at $9.7 million, amounting to a 64 percent tax reduction from five years earlier.
There’s no indication that Trump, his children or others in his organization have done anything improper in fighting tax assessments. However, as a presidential candidate, Trump’s business practices and taxes are under more scrutiny.
A spokeswoman for Trump’s campaign declined to comment on his property tax challenges or to make available Trump’s son Eric or daughter Ivanka, who have played key roles in managing his golf assets.
County appraisers in Miami defended their office’s work, saying there are legitimate reasons that proposed valuations of Doral have sometimes declined, including that spaces under renovation are assigned zero value until the work is completed.
However, without referring directly to Trump, Deputy Chief Property Appraiser Lazaro Solis of Miami-Dade County said in a phone interview that his staff was often hampered because commercial developers were unwilling to fully share financial information with his staff, who are responsible for issuing a million property valuations each year.
You can’t say it’s worth $50 million and then say it’s worth a million and a half.
Lawrence Hirsh, founder of Pennsylvania-based Golf Property Analysts and a former president of the Society of Golf Appraisers
Trump’s representatives also challenged appraisals at two of his exclusive golf layouts in Palm Beach County, Florida. They settled on a reduced value on the clubhouse in West Palm Beach but lost appeals the last three years over the valuation of his country club in Jupiter, Florida. Its 2015 tax value is $17.2 million; candidate Trump said it was worth more than $50 million.
He listed the Trump International Golf Club in West Palm Beach, whose golf courses he built on parcels leased from the county in the 1990s, as a personal asset worth between $25 million and $50 million. Vince McLaren, Palm Beach County’s golf and country club assessor, said he’d appraised the clubhouse and 27 holes of golf at $16.3 million for 2015.
McLaren said Trump’s estimate might have assumed a different use for the leased land, such as residential development, that would command a higher market value than golf courses.
The Trump campaign did not respond to questions about how he could list leased property as an asset.
Since creating 27 holes in West Palm Beach in the 1990s, Trump has built or refurbished 17 elite golf courses from Los Angeles to Scotland and Dubai. He aims to assemble “the world’s finest portfolio of golf courses,” the Trump website says.
Trump’s Los Angeles golf club features a 2-mile stretch along the Pacific Coast, while he has touted his 18-hole tract winding through sand dunes on Scotland’s eastern coast as “the best golf course anywhere in the world.”
On his financial statement, he valued them collectively at well over a half billion dollars.
$301.6 million The amount of revenue Donald Trump says his golf courses generated from Jan. 1, 2015, to May 15, 2016
Details of the financial performance of Trump’s golf operations are elusive. He has refused to release his income tax returns, despite a tradition of presidential candidates doing so, saying he would await an IRS audit’s outcome. Nor has he been willing to reveal what tax rate he pays, though he told ABC in May: “I fight very hard to pay as little tax as possible.”
In his financial disclosure statement, he relied on a provision in U.S. ethics laws that allows him to avoid disclosing his businesses’ profitability and instead report gross revenues. For his golf operations, he listed total revenues of $301.6 million during the 16 1/2-month period ending May 15, of which about 43 percent, or $131.9 million, came from Doral.
Trump’s web site, Trump.com, reveals his ambition for building his golf brand. In a video, he is shown taking a sweeping golf swing as Ivanka Trump narrates: “He’d be playing the first nine holes while thinking about the next nine holes that he was going to be developing.”
“I love shaping earth,” Trump says in the video. “It’s a canvas.”
He’d be playing the first nine holes while thinking about the next nine holes that he was going to be developing — how he was gonna move the earth, how he was gonna shape it, how he was gonna make that perfect golf experience.
Trump snatched Doral, with its signature Blue Monster golf course, through a New York bankruptcy in 2012. It had hosted a premier event on the Professional Golf Association tour, now known as the World Golf Championships-Cadillac, for half a century.
In 2013, Trump’s representatives informally appealed the Dade-County appraisers’ proposal to raise the property’s tax value from around $80 million to $102 million even as heavy renovations were underway. The appraiser’s office relented, lowering it to $84 million when Trump agreed not to appeal.
In 2014, again with renovations in progress, the appraisers proposed a further value reduction to $77.5 million. After a challenge from Trump, they cut it to $69.2 million. In 2015, Trump appealed to the county’s Value Adjustment Board and won a reduction from a proposed $104.4 million to $98.3 million.
Solis defended the appraisal figures, emphasizing that a developer’s investment does not “translate dollar for dollar into actual value.”
“You can have a property that’s overbuilt. You can have a property that’s already dilapidated,” he said. “You put a significant amount of capital into it, and all you do is bring it up to a standard value.”
He characterized cooperation from Trump’s representatives as “normal. . . . They’ve provided us with the information that we’ve requested. They’ve allowed us on the property. We’ve been able to inspect it.”
However, Solis was surprised to learn that Trump had reported nearly $132 million in revenue from Doral on his financial disclosure statement.
“We will definitely explore it,” he said.
Solis said the county based its appraisal on what Trump paid for the land — $104.8 million — and that his office was unaware then that the New York real estate tycoon had paid $150 million, which included personal property, business value and other intangibles.
He said his office also tracked a developer’s expenditures by monitoring building permits. But Trump’s permits, obtained by the Miami Herald, estimate the renovation work at $14 million. Work has been completed on the spa and most of the 10 lodges containing guest suites.
“Legally, they’re not required to give us their financials,” Solis said. He noted that his office sends an annual survey to most commercial property owners seeking their income and expense figures, and fewer than 10 percent respond.
“It’s dismal,” he said, “because most people do not feel comfortable providing any government entity with their personal financial information.”
Ruiz, the Doral City Council member, charged that Trump “does take advantage of every single loophole, and he takes advantage of the American way of doing business.”
The lost property tax revenue, she said, is “money we don’t have for our infrastructure, that we don’t have for our parks, for our education and for our residents.”
We do have developers that understand and are paying their fair share and are being equitable. . . . They’re certainly doing business in our city because it is profitable for them, and they’re willing to pay their fair share.
Sandra Ruiz, Doral City Council member
Shortly after buying the resort, Ruiz noted, Trump’s employees planted a large number of trees, blocking “amazing views” of Doral’s golf courses that residents had enjoyed for decades.
Doral recently lost the Cadillac tournament – a shift that occurred as the PGA distanced itself from Trump’s calls for a prohibition on Muslim immigrants entering the country and for a wall to be built along the Mexican border.
Miami Herald reporter Doug Hanks contributed to this article.