This article was first published in the Palm Beach Post by Jeff Ostrowski here
In another indication that the world’s most powerful politician has few qualms about battling local public officials, President Donald Trump again has sued the Palm Beach County Property Appraiser over the valuation of his Trump National Golf Club.
The suit marks the fifth year in a row that Trump has disputed the property tax bill for the 131-acre course along Donald Ross Road. Even as he fights the county’s $19.7 million estimate, Trump’s financial disclosures in 2016 and 2017 list the value of Trump National Golf Club in Jupiter as “over $50 million.”
Based on the property appraiser’s valuation, the Palm Beach County Tax Collector sent Trump a bill for $398,315. Trump responded with a lawsuit — and a wire transfer for $296,595.01, which his Tampa-based attorney described as “a good faith estimate” of the sum Trump really owes.
While Trump’s three-page suit doesn’t say how much he thinks the course should be worth, Jupiter Golf Club pays property taxes at a rate of 2 percent. So by claiming he was overcharged by $101,720, Trump asserts that the property is worth $15 million, and that the appraiser overvalued the course by more than $5 million.
The latest suit, filed in December, comes as Trump faces allegations of profiting from the presidency and profligate spending on golf weekends.
“No president in history has burned more public money to sustain his personal lifestyle than Donald Trump,” writes former George W. Bush staffer David Frum in the new book Trumpocracy.
Meanwhile, journalist David Cay Johnston writes in It’s Even Worse Than You Think that Trump’s hotels and golf courses have enjoyed rising fortunes thanks to his political profile. In an email Monday, Johnston said it’s “unseemly” for a sitting president to boast about his course’s success while also suing local officials to cut his tax bill.
“Trump tells voters his properties are hugely valuable but claims they are worth far far less for property tax purposes, which unfairly shifts to others the burdens of government,” Johnston said.
Trump also sued over the property appraiser’s 2016 valuation of $18.4 million. A Palm Beach Post analysis of 2016 appraisals found that Trump National Golf Club is among the mostly richly valued courses in the county, a fact that would seem to bolster his argument that he’s routinely overtaxed.
Trump has yet to win a challenge over the Jupiter club’s value. Special magistrates twice have ruled against Trump’s appeals of his property tax bill to the Value Adjustment Board. And experts in golf course appraisals say valuing the properties can be a tricky task.
The $18.4 million estimate for 2016 meant the property appraiser valued the course’s 131 acres of land designated for golf at $140,802 per acre. Only the Palm Beach Country Club — located just a chip shot from the ocean — is worth more, at $149,956 per acre.
By that calculation, Trump National Golf Club was worth more per acre than every other course in the county, including St. Andrews Country Club in Boca Raton ($119,450 per acre) and The Breakers’ course in Palm Beach ($113,055 per acre).
While Palm Beach County houses near the ocean are valued at a premium, experts on valuing golf courses say a prime location isn’t always the main driver of value.
“Forget about price per acre. Forget about closer to the ocean,” said Larry Hirsch, an appraiser in Pennsylvania and author of Golf Property Analysis and Valuation: A Modern Approach. “The way you evaluate a property like that is based on its economics, and how much money it makes.”
Indeed, that’s how the Palm Beach County Property Appraiser defended its valuation of Trump National Golf Club after Trump challenged the county’s valuation in 2014. The property appraiser pegged Trump National National Golf Club’s annual revenue at $11.5 million and its net operating income at $1.66 million.
From there, the property appraiser used a capitalization rate — a common measure of a commercial property’s value — to arrive at its estimate.
Trump previously argued that the course was worth just $5 million because that’s how much he paid for it in December 2012.
The 7,500-yard course was designed by Jack Nicklaus. The club’s website describes amenities that include a 68,000-square-foot clubhouse, a 15,000-square-foot “Mediterranean-style” spa, a “world-class” fitness center, lighted tennis courts and a “tropical resort-style swimming pool.” Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe played at the course in February 2017.
Trump’s suit names as defendants Property Appraiser Dorothy Jacks, Tax Collector Anne Gannon and Florida Department of Revenue head Leon Biegalski. None of the players in the suit would comment.