Cathy Kern is somewhat of a folk hero in North Tonawanda, N.Y.
But if you ask folks at city hall, or at Walmart corporate headquarters, what they think of Cathy Kern, you'll get the opposite response. Over the past six years, Kern and other anti-Walmart activists have filed 5 lawsuits that effectively staved off the development of a Walmart superstore in their community. Ultimately Walmart prevailed, and their huge store is now in its final stages of completion.
North Tonawanda (NT) is located midway between Buffalo and Niagara Falls, in Niagara County. There are already 6 Walmart's
within 16 miles of NT, including a supercenter in Niagara Falls 9 miles away.
In November, 2006, Walmart submitted
an application to the City to construct a 183,000 square foot superstore. In May, 2008, the city's Planning Commission approved the environmental impact statement, and by September, 2008, the site plan was approved.
Kern and other NT residents formed a group called NT First, and filed a lawsuit to annul the Planning Commission's decision. In June, 2009 the state court did annul the site plan approval, saying that the city was required by its own code to submit a stormwater pollution prevention plan -- which had not been done. The court sent the case back to the city to complete.
Between November, 2009 and July, 2010, Kern et al. filed three more lawsuits against Walmart, each raising a different point of law. In the fourth lawsuit, Walmart and the City filed a motion to impose sanctions against Kern and her lawyer, David Seeger, for "frivolous" litigation.
In September, 2010, Judge Ralph Boniello, III dismissed the fourth lawsuit,
and permitted Walmart and the city to seek the sources of Kern's funding. Boniello ruled that the lawsuit was "filled with re-statements of matters previously litigated and half-truths [and] has only served to further delay the project and cause the Respondents to incur additional legal fees." Boniello added: "In fact [Walmart and the City] have raised the possibility that such delay tactics are consistent with a national campaign allegedly funded by outside groups whose sole goal is to block Walmart developments." The Judge ordered Kern and Seeger to produce their funding sources and NT First membership names, or face contempt of court.
In a letter dated December 9, 2010
, Attorney Seeger informed the Judge that the group NT First had "terminated its existence," ended its representation by Seeger, and liquidated its checking account balance of $13.22 -- donating it to The Salvation Army. Seeger noted that under New York law, "an unincorporated association's financial exposure is limited to those assets held by it and for it through its members." Seeger noted, "The Association, now that it has laid bare its financial records [and] membership lists... has no reason to continue its existence, and no means to afford any further legal representation."
Seeger told the Court that the members of NT First "remain concerned that Walmart, in furtherance of its nationwide campaign to legally attack its opponents, will attempt to force additional disclosures and otherwise terrify its member and officers."
Attorney Seeger warned, "The First Amendment secures Petitioners members' various First Amendment freedoms including... the right to petition the government for redress of grievances." Citing the Citizens United
case, Seeger wrote: "disclosure of donations and funding is off limits, except upon a demonstration of compelling state interest." Citing three U.S. Supreme Court cases between the NAACP and the State of Alabama (1959 to 1964), Seeger argued that unincorporated associations are immune from state scrutiny of memberships lists. "At bottom," Seeger said, "Walmart is not entitled to the requested disclosure, unless there is a compelling state interest overriding the First Amendment Protection."
In June, 2011, a group called The Clean Water Advocates of Western New York
, led by Cathy Kern, filed a fifth lawsuit under the Clean Water Act in federal court. This suit was originally filed against Walmart, North Tonawanda, and the N.Y. State Department of Transportation. A U.S. District Court Judge signed a consent decree requiring the NYSDOT to comply with its stormwater permit.
To fight her contempt charges, Cathy Kern is now represented by Buffalo civil rights attorney Frank T. Housh. "When Walmart began an illegal, permitless construction of its Superstore," Housh told me, "North Tonawanda First did what citizens groups are supposed to do: they petitioned the Courts for relief. Their efforts were hugely successful. Walmart and its rubber-stamp local government were forced to get a construction permit, divulge its plans to the public, and follow the procedures in the Clean Water Act."
Housh says because of this success, "my clients have been targeted for reprisal. Put simply, Walmart is seeking the bankruptcy and public humiliation of a woman in her sixties who lives alone with her cats because she succeeded in making them follow the law. They want her ruined life to stand as an object lesson to anyone who believes the rules which apply to everyone else apply to the world's largest corporation."
Judge Boniello has made it clear, Housh says, that he may order Kern to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees to Walmart's attorneys. Boniello's Order was stayed pending an appellate court ruling on the propriety of the Judge's Order, which should be issued in the next few weeks.
In December of 2010 -- three months after Justice Boniello's decision to allow Walmart to pursue NT First documents -- the New York Daily News
reported that Walmart had donated $10,000 to the Niagara County Republican Committee. NT Mayor Robert G. Ortt, and NT City Attorney Shawn Nickerson
-- both strong proponents of the Walmart project -- are Niagara County Republican office holders. So is Justice Ralph Boniello, III, who was elected to the Niagara County Supreme Court in 2001. As of 2010, Boniello's salary
is $146,700. The Republican Judge is up for re-election in 2014.
Walmart has used its legal muscle countless times to appeal local zoning decisions to the county courts, to the appeals courts, and beyond. The corporation has more lawsuits than men's suits. In North Tonawanda, Walmart's hounding of local residents for legal fees, membership lists and donor lists, is just another attempt by a 1 percent corporation to chill public participation and to narrow the First Amendment freedoms not just of Cathy Kern -- but of citizen activists everywhere across America.
The email message that came into Sprawl-Busters this week was very clear:
“This letter is to let you know that we won!! Quartz Hill Cares—you did a couple of stories starting in October of 2006—WON!! We beat Walmart and the City of Lancaster!! I am so ecstatic! This is a good, good day and I wanted you to know. You were instrumental in helping me (us) get this grass roots thing started and you are not forgotten."
For residents in Quartz Hill, California, this was a sweet moment after nearly five and a half years of battle. Quartz Hill is a rural, unicorporated town in Los Angeles County, situated in the Mojave Desert between the cities of Lancaster and Palmdale,
On February 1, 2009, Sprawl-Busters reported that 30 parents and students had rallied near the Quartz Hill, California High School to demonstrate their opposition to plans to build a Walmart supercenter across the street from the school. The residents held signs and handed out fliers for two hours in the early morning. “It's an informational rally to get the information out to the public about what they can do to stop the rezoning of these areas,“ Loretta Berry told the Antelope Valley News. Berry is a member of the group Quartz Hill Cares, which was founded in December 2006 to oppose the proposed developments. “It's a grass-roots effort at its finest, just citizens from all walks of life coming together,“ Berry said. Developers have super-sized plans for the intersection: a Walmart Supercenter on the northwest corner of the intersection, plus a Super Target and a Home Depot on the southeast corner.
The land slated for the Walmart is zoned residential and must be rezoned as commercial before the shopping centers can be constructed. “If this were already zoned commercial, yeah, you know, we could fight it and we might have a voice, but the fact that they have to rezone it to commercial—we have a chance. We can stop the rezoning,“ Berry explained. She told the Valley News that the Walmart/Target/Home Depot plan was “just madness—the wonderful community of Quartz Hill will get all the crime, the trash, the pollution - all the garbage that goes with supercenters.“
On December 22, 2006, residents contacted Sprawl-Busters about their superstore battles. There are already two Walmart discount stores in Lancaster, California. The superstore in Palmdale is roughly 6 miles away. Quartz Hill residents, whose town borders Lancaster, wrote: “Our rural community in Southern California has just found out the Lancaster is planning on building super centers right on our boundary lines. For years Lancaster and Palmdale have been encroaching upon us and annexing as much of our rural land as possible. It has been left undeveloped for quite some time with the exception of many housing tracts. The hubs of Lancaster and Palmdale are 8-10 miles away from Quartz Hill, a community of 10,000 residents. The only thing currently bordering the planned site is Quartz Hill High School. This whole plan is ludicrous, will destroy Quartz Hill, and we need help.“
Within a 10 mile radius of the proposed site are a Costco, 2 Lowe's Home Improvement Centers, 2 Home Depots, a K-mart, 2 Target stores, and dozens of shopping centers. Downtown Quartz Hill is the home to over 70 small mom-and-pop businesses, including a florist, a hardware store, salons, garages/ tire centers, liquor stores, restaurants, etc. The residents of Quartz Hill found out about the City of Lancaster's plans to build 2 supercenters in December of 2006.
The desert land that they want to build on was zoned for urban residential, with one lot small office zoned. The opposition quickly formed a grassroots organization, Quartz Hill Cares, and began spreading the word and seeking help in putting a stop to these supercenters. In 2008, R. Rex Parris, the new mayor, immediately dismissed the entire Planning Commission (most of whom opposed the supercenters) and appointed his own commission—3 of which are and/or have ties to local developers. The plans to build went full steam ahead. The Draft Environmental impact Reports were released on January 9, 2009, giving the public until February 23rd to respond to them.
The city of Lancaster in 2009 approved the Walmart rezoning, but Quartz Hill Cares sued the city, arguing that the city had violated Planning and Zoning laws and the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). On June 29, 2010, the Los Angeles County Superior Court determined that allegations made by Quartz Hill Cares against the City of Lancaster were unfounded. City officials issued a press release boasting “City of Lancaster Prevails In Westside Shopping Center Court Case.” The city boasted that “after reviewing all case-related evidence, the court ruled in favor of the City.” The city’s attorney said: “The court’s agreement with the City’s approval of the project enables the developers to move forward with this development. This court ruling demonstrates that the City was both accurate and thorough in meeting the procedural, technical, and substantive requirements of the Planning laws and the California Environmental Quality Act.”
But that was not the end of the story. On March 16th, 2012, the Second District State Court of Appeal issued a 32 page decision overturning the 2010 decision of the Superior Court of Los Angeles County, which had upheld the Environmental Impact Report (EIR) prepared for the shopping center, to be located at 60th Street West and Avenue L in the City of Lancaster.
Quartz Hill Cares argued in its appeal that the City failed to consider the alternative of a commercial development without the big box store. The Appellate Court agreed with Quartz Hill Cares that the Final Environmental Impact Review in this case was “insufficient as an information document because its findings that the Reduced Commercial Density Alternative was not economically viable lacks the required evidentiary support. Because its conclusion is unsupported by substantial evidence, therefore, the City prejudicially abused its discretion by failing to proceed in a manner required by the California Environmental Quality Act.”
The City argued that “the lack of a big box anchor would effectively preclude development of its commercial center, since the secondary commercial uses remaining in the proposed project are not likely to develop without the customer draw created by the anchor tenant.” But the court found that “the evidence of economic infeasibility was not specific an concrete as would justify the…conclusion to reject the alternative as ‘not economically viable.’” The court ruled that the ”the document lacks any comparative data and analysis between the project—with the big box retailer—on the one hand, and the scaled-down version…on the other hand. There is no evidence of profitability or feasibility of the Reduced Commercial Density Alternative from which to make any comparison to determine whether the alternative would be less profitable or infeasible. Nor is there any factual justification for the bare conclusion that ‘secondary commercial uses…are not likely to develop without the customer draw created by the anchor tenant.”
The court said that the City had “cited us nothing in the entire administrative record to indicate any substantiality for the finding that the Reduced Commercial Density Alternative would not be feasible.” The court ruled that the city was ‘obligated to include substantial evidence, somewhere in the record, supporting its subsequent conclusion that the alternative was not economically viable.”
Lancaster Mayor Rex Parris responded to the Court’s ruling: “Along with the developer and Walmart, we are of course disappointed that the Court of Appeal would reverse the decision reached by the Superior Court on the basis of one aspect of a comprehensive and voluminous EIR. However, in shopping center developments such as this, it is unfortunately not uncommon to have to work through multiple legal challenges. The City Council, along with Walmart, will now consider options to supplement the record in support of the EIR, which is compliant in all other aspects.”WHAT YOU CAN DO
What you can do: This court decision is a major setback to the city, and a major victory for the citizen’s group. To learn more about Quart Hill Care, go to www.quartzhillcares.info
or call Loretta Berry at 661-943-7650 or 661-816-5069.
Readers are encouraged to send an email to Lancaster Mayor Rex Parris at: firstname.lastname@example.org
with the following message: “Dear Mayor Parris,
I am sure that neither you, nor Walmart, ever imagined that the Court of Appeal would rule against you.
When the lower court ruled in your favor, the city’s lawyer said the city's review had been ‘accurate and thorough.’ It turns out the environmental report was neither.
Now you have a chance to seriously review a reduced scale project—deleting the big box—and making the project fit the site, not the site fit the project. Remember that this was urban residential land before you rushed to rezone it and change your General Plan.
You have the chance now to give people in your city and Quartz Hill what they want: a smaller, more compatible project that fits into the character of the community.
A group of citizens has beaten the world’s largest retailer. It’s time for you to show some leadership and represent their interests for once.”
On November 21, 2011, Sprawl-Buster's received a short, succinct email about a battle brewing over a big box store in Athens, Georgia. "A Walmart anchor store was proposed last week 1 block from downtown Athens," the email said. "There are dozens of small businesses there, most of which will not survive a 100,000 sq ft. Walmart a block away."
A second email came in later that day: "I live in Athens, Georgia, where there are 2 Walmarts now. They are proposing building a third anchor store 1 BLOCK from downtown Athens, which would destroy ALL of the local businesses there. These little stores are what make Athens a great town. Our Mayor is all for it; she was quoted on Saturday as saying, "Some might call Walmart’s foreign suppliers sweatshops, but they’re putting food on the table for Third World workers - Mayor Nancy Denson " Our community is on it's own for the time being."
Before Christmas arrived, a full-blown group had been formed: People For A Better Athens, and petitions and local events were happening to raise awareness of the Walmart threat to Athens. The group launched a People For A Better Athens website, where they explained the project and their mission: "Downtown Athens, Georgia is renowned for its rich cultural history, creative artistic community, local businesses and world famous music scene. Athens has earned its nickname the 'Classic City.' Today, a massive downtown development proposal threatens to alter Athens irrevocably. Athens’ citizens have discovered in an 11th hour revelation that Selig Enterprises plans to build a 100,000 sq. foot Walmart in downtown Athens. The construction of a big box store in downtown Athens will devastate the existing local business community and threatens to turn a vibrant downtown area into a ghost town of shuttered stores and empty buildings. We encourage the citizens of Athens to 'Raise Your Voice' so your elected officials know that we can do better than plop a 100,000 sq. ft. Walmart in downtown Athens. We want to see our elected officials execute an Athens-based vision for downtown development that will better benefit the local citizens and enhance the long term viability of Athens.
Sprawl-Busters posted a story about the Athens battle on January 15, 2012. People for a Better Athens had presented the city council with more than 17,000 signatures from Athens residents petitioning against a proposed downtown Walmart. Athens attorney Russell Edwards has been a point person for the opposition. Edwards has been urging local officials to consider the economic downside of constructing a third Walmart in this city. “We can see places that will be affected most, places like Faulkner’s hardware, that would be right up the street from Walmart, would immediately go out of business.”
Athens Mayor Nancy Denson has stated publicly that her hands are tied. “That’s what’s sad to me is that the people that are coming there are asking us to stop something that there’s not a legal mechanism by which to stop it," Mayor said. “And I wouldn’t like to stop it if we could. The private investors have a right to enjoy the value of their property when they get ready to sell it. I think it’s wrong to block them to reduce the value of their property by holding it up.”
The anti-Walmart battle attracted the interest of an Occupy Athens group, which since March 3rd had been peacefully encamped in front of City Hall. The group sent the following statement to Sprawl-Busters today:
"At 3:30am on March 7, 2012 at least 17 Athenas-Clarke County police officers, including the chief of police, arrived suddenly and without warning, to threaten us with violence and arrest if we did not vacate 'City Athena.' Occupy Athens established the City Athena encampment on the grounds of city hall on the afternoon of Saturday, March 3. We have lived there peacefully and without incident; that is until the police created around us an intimidating circus of force in the wee hours of the morning, away from media and prying public eyes.
This cowardly suppression of our First Amendment rights illustrates how little the State, and in this instance the Athens-Clarke County government, thinks of the public’s voice or will. We were loud, assertive, and inconvenient for the city. Last we looked, none of those traits are crimes. Despite Mayor Denson’s on-record endorsement of our encampment, and the implied support of ACCPD’s own Lt. Nick Soriano, we were evicted without any firm justification or warning.
'Y’all have a public forum out there in front of city hall for as long as you want to have it,' Mayor Denson said on camera to Athens Occupiers on Monday, March 5. 'I will protect your rights as diligently as I protect theirs.'
We were told we were blocking access to a public building—this is a lie. We were told we were blocking a public walkway—this is a lie. We were accused of doing damage to city property with no explanation of what was done, when or where—this is a lie.
When we attempted to meet their demands to avoid the violence they obviously intended to visit upon us should we not have complied, we were again told that moving to the sidewalk would be illegal. This is a lie.
Occupy Athens camped on a sidewalk less than half the width of that outside city hall for over one month. The ACCPD fully acknowledged our rights within applicable laws and the Constitution. Yet today, in circumstances more favorable to us, we were told that attempting to exercise our constitutional rights would result in police-on-protester violence.
All of this came within hours of our participation in the monthly county commissioner’s meeting at which we again demanded the city hold four town hall meetings and the mayor apologize for her part in fostering an illegal meeting with the EDF on September 27, 2011.
This eviction is a direct response to the pressure we exert on the ACC government. We have made city officials nervous that the people of this town are no longer willing to swallow their half-truths and hurried explanations for illegal meetings and backroom dealings with Walmart cronies.
As previously announced, Occupy Athens will livestream a press conference on the steps of city hall (Washington St. side) at 1:00 pm, today, March 7. All other events on our published schedule are postponed until further notice with the exception of General Assemblies, which will be held every night at 8:00 pm outside city hall. All persons, including city officials and press, are welcome to attend all General Assemblies.
Power to the people! Occupy Athens."WHAT YOU CAN DO
Anyone who wishes to support the efforts of Occupy Athens in their efforts to force city government to hold open, public hearings on the Walmart plan, should email the group at: email@example.com
Readers are also urged to email Athens Mayor Nancy Denson at firstname.lastname@example.org
with the following message:
"Dear Mayor Denson,
Before you rush to drop a third Walmart on your community, honor the request of Occupy Athens, and hold a series of public hearings on the project. Give your own residents the same rights that you are apparently willing to give a corporation, which cannot vote—yet has more influence on city government than your own constituents.
Welcome Occupy Athens back to City Athena—the cradle of democracy in your city.
Cuyhoga County, OH
The term 'retail rustling' describes the efforts of one community to steal the merchants that are doing business in another community. It's a form of business poaching that has been going on for many years, but has gotten so cut-throat in some areas that local officials are attempting to get communities to agree to stop the rustling.
In November of 2011, voters in the city of South Euclid, Ohio approved a rezoning ballot question to allow them to poach an existing Walmart in the neighboring city of Cleveland Heights, by building a bigger one less than one mile away in South Euclid.
Although Walmart never acknowledged their involvement in the South Euclid project until three months after the vote, Question 96 on the ballot was the beginning of the end for the Walmart anchor store in the Severance Town Center mall located in neighboring Cleveland Heights.
The economic development director for Cleveland Heights told the Cleveland Plain Dealer that his office had been working hard to keep Walmart in his city. "It makes my stomach turn to think that after this whole rejuvenation of collaboration and communities working together, that we're going to have one big box store move five blocks away to another community," he said.
Emotions ran high during the Question 96 campaign. The developer won—but 45% of South Euclid's voters said "NO" to rezoning. The City Council President David Miller—a strong supporter of poaching Walmart to South Euclid—was quoted in the newspaper as telling Question 96 opponents: "Thank you and goodbye. Crawl back under the rock you came from."
But the issue of 'poaching' a store from a neighboring community did not crawl away. In February of 2012, the city of South Euclid, which stole a Walmart from its neighbor, became the 18th community in Cuyahoga County, Ohio to approve an 'anti-poaching' agreement.
The purpose of the Cuyahoga County Anti-Poaching Protocol is "to express the commitment of the participating communities that they will not actively pursue or encourage the re-location of a business that has not indicated that it is considering a move from its current location in another participating community."
"As a matter of principle," the document says, "we agree that it is desirable, when possible, to retain businesses in the local jurisdiction in which they currently reside. If it is not possible to retain a business in its current local jurisdiction, our next goal is to retain the business in the county in which it currently resides." Signatories to the Agreement say that "if a business has not expressed an interest in re-locating... communities should not actively pursue or 'poach' that company to encourage it to move from its current location." The term "actively pursue" means "to initiate contact with the business directly, with the intent of luring the business, through cold calls, visits, mail solicitations, direct marketing, or other means."
As of February, 20 out of 59 communities in Cuyahoga County have signed on to these protocols. County Executive Ed FitzGerald calls the anti-poaching agreement "an important first step in uniting our county."
This kind of regional land use planning is rare in the "cowboy" world of real estate development. Landowners and developers have pretty much had their way at the local level for the past 50 years—which explains why huge malls have been built next to residential tracts, in the middle of wetlands, and on the edge of highways far from the downtown commercial core of most communities.
California tried to address this issue of big box poaching more than a decade ago. In October of 1999, Sprawl-Busters reported that California Governor Gray Davis had signed legislation which prohibited cities and towns from providing financial incentives to lure big box stores and auto dealers from neighboring communities.
The California law requires the poaching city to share the sales tax revenue with the other city at a rate of 50%, if the relocation would result in a loss to the city where the business is currently located. The law was written to prevent "expensive bidding wars" over big box stores between local governments that were taking place in California, and to prevent a business from threatening to relocate to a nearby city if the current municipality fails to come up with an incentive package for it to stay.
If the Cuyahoga anti-retail rustling Agreement had been in effect between South Euclid and Cleveland Heights before the Walmart poaching began—it is likely that the enormous, 180,000 square foot Walmart would never have happened—and Cleveland Heights would not be facing a loss of jobs and tax revenues from the ailing Severance Town Center.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
The South Euclid City Council—which happily poached a Walmart in November of 2011—three months later inked an agreement to prevent poaching of its own stores. The fact remains, Cuyahoga County is on the right path, and every city, town and village in America should develop similar Anti-Poaching Agreements with its neighbors. Not all big box projects can be stopped this way, but the hop-scotch sprawl perfected by corporations like Walmart would be sharply curtailed.
The redundant South Euclid Walmart should crawl back under the rock it came from. We need to take back control over our hometowns from the 1% corporations who now have the upper hand.
South Euclid, OH
On May 15, 2011, Sprawl-Busters reported from South Euclid, Ohio, that residents were actively organizing to fight off a proposed Walmart superstore. A development company called First Interstate Properties had purchased part of the Oakwood Country Club property in South Euclid, Ohio, with the intent of using part of the land for big box retail.
Owner Mitchell Schneider had purchased 62 acres in South Euclid, and was closing in on another 92 acres in Cleveland Heights. Schneider described his plans as 63 acres for retail, 22 acres for residential, and the rest open space. Schneider indicated at the time that like his other malls, he’d like to attract stores like Target, Home Depot or Walmart.
There are currently 6 Walmart stores within 15 miles of South Euclid/Cleveland Heights area, including one Walmart right in Cleveland Heights on Mayfield Road, and a superstore 8 miles away in Bedford. The entire shopping center footprint under consideration would be around 325,000 s.f., or around the size of 5.5 football fields—plus the parking area.
The land First Interstate chose was zoned residential, not commercial—so opponents began to organize around that vulnerable issue. A group called Citizens for Oakwood, which is part of a larger non-profit group called the Severance Neighborhood Organization (SNO), began organizing for a bitter fight. “The future of the neighborhood is in your hands” the group said in a postcard mailing, which showed a photo of the Country Club with a bulldozer threatening it. “Is This What You Want?”
This battle was a déjà vu for Cleveland Heights residents, who in 1994, beat back a similar big box proposal submitted by Developer’s Diversified Realtors. This time, opponents of the Schneider plan said that if the Oakwood project were built, the existing Walmart discount store in Cleveland Heights just one mile away would be closed.
South Euclid city government was so anxious to land this project that the city updated its Comprehensive Plan, admitting it was “precipitated by a request to rezone a 41-acre portion of the Oakwood Site from residential to commercial use.” Opponents decided that it the City Council voted to rezone the property, they would take the issue to South Euclid voters on the ballot. “Oakwood is not a done deal,” they said. “This is our community.”
The local media scoffed at claims that Walmart was the likely anchor store for the project. The Sun News wrote in an editorial: “We strongly urge Schneider not to try and lure Walmart from [Cleveland Heights]—there are plenty of other national retailers that are underserved in this area to fill the shopping center.”But First Interstate would never confirm that it had a deal with Walmart, and the giant retailer, as usual, would not confirm its interest in the project either.
On November 8, 2011, Question 96 on South Euclid Rezoning came before the voters. A total of 7,723 votes were cast, with 4,272 (55%) in favor of the rezoning, and 3,451 (45%) against the big box rezoning. The developer reportedly poured as much as half a million dollars into the referendum, which is roughly $117 per vote. After the election, South Euclid City Council President David Miller, who was re-elected, and who strongly supported the Oakwood Commons project, made this remark to big box opponents: “Thank you and goodbye. Crawl back under the rock you came from.”
Within three months of the election, word began to filter out that Walmart was, in fact, the mysterious 180,000 s.f. anchor tenant in the Oakwoods Commons project. An actual rendering of the Walmart footprint was posted by a real estate company on its website, and was reposted on the Heights Observer Blog in late February. The real estate company quickly pulled the brochure down—but it was too late, the Walmart was out of the bag.
The Cleveland Plain Dealer promptly ran a story that local residents were “dismayed” that a Walmart would sit on property that once was a golf course. "A Walmart Supercenter will destroy local business and cannibalize from our local grocers, who pay a living wage, unlike Walmart," one opponent said. "In an area like ours, with declining population and income, new retail only survives by taking from existing stores."
A Walmart spokesman finally admitted to the Plain Dealer, "Our customers have told us that they want more convenient access to affordable groceries, and we think a new store at Oakwood Commons can be a part of the solution for local families. We hope to have more details to share soon." Mitchell Schneider, the owner of the property, refused however to nail it down as a Walmart. "What I can confirm to you is that we are in fact still in negotiation with Walmart (and others) and if and when we have a final, formal agreement, I will definitely provide you with an announcement."
The ugly reality is that a new Walmart at Oakwood means the Walmart less than 1 mile away at Severance Town Center in Cleveland Heights will shut down. The economic development director for Cleveland Heights did not mince his words. He told the Plain Dealer that his office had been working hard to keep the Severance Walmart alive. "It makes my stomach turn to think that after this whole rejuvenation of collaboration and communities working together, that we're going to have one big box store move five blocks away to another community," he said.
For Walmart, such hop-scotch development is standard practice. Usually the company tells local communities that a larger store will create hundreds of new jobs—but in South Euclid, Walmart admitted that because it will be shutting down an existing store nearby, the net job change would only be 85 jobs. If any of the existing grocery stores near Oakwood Commons shut down, the net job impact could very well be negative. First Interstate Properties continues to boast that the South Euclid project will create 700 jobs.WHAT YOU CAN DO
Ironically, in late January, the city of South Euclid became the 18th community in Cuyahoga County to approve an ‘anti-poaching' agreement. Under this agreement, individual communities agree not to actively pursue or encourage re-location of businesses now located in other Cuyahoga communities. The agreement also calls on cities and towns to notify one another if they learn of a company planning to relocate.
This kind of anti-pilfering agreement—had it been in place before the Oakwood Commons project—would have made it much more difficult for the South Euclid City Council to steal Cleveland Heights’ Walmart store.
But the anti-poaching compact—which is a good land use tool—is too little, too late for Cleveland Heights, and for the residents of South Euclid who are located only minutes away from an existing Walmart store at the Severance Town Center. Many homeowners will suffer a loss in property value, and suffer through traffic congestion, just to line the pockets of a large developer who ignores zoning maps, and a huge retailer which changes retail locations as casually as you or I change shoes.
The South Euclid referendum demonstrates once again that any town’s future is for sale to the highest bidder. When votes can be purchased with unbridled corporate spending, the whole concept of orderly zoning is out the window. Another example of the high cost of corporate free speech.
Readers are urged to email South Euclid Mayor Georgine Welo at: email@example.com
with the following message:
“Dear Mayor Welo,
Your city bent over backwards to steal revenues from Cleveland Heights as part of the Oakwood Commons project—and now you agree to a County Plan that will not allow other towns to poach your Walmart like you did to them.
The sad fact is, your city demonstrated that it was incapable of thinking about regional impacts at all—but only what goes on inside your borders. South Euclid is not an island, and your support for building another big box store less than a mile from an existing store is proof that regional planning is dead in South Euclid.
On top of that, your City Council President, in the flush of his re-election, tells voters in the region, “Crawl back under the rock you came from!” To which city voters might have been justified in responding with: “Crawl back under the Walmart you came from!”
The Cleveland Heights store will close, and one of the last major pieces of open space in your community will be lost. North East Ohio is already saturated with Walmarts, including a superstore only 8 miles away in Bedford. In return, you have Walmart’s promise of 85 new jobs—not counting those lost at other existing grocery stores.
This First Interstate fiasco brings no added value economically to your city. Retail must follow growth, not lead it. Inviting Walmart to South Euclid is like inviting the cannibals to dinner, and it is your existing merchants who are the main course on the menu. Your Administration has made the basic mistake of believing that a new building going up means jobs—while the buildings and the merchants going down as a result don’t count.
For your constituents, economic development has turned into economic dislocation. And your neighbors now know that you are willing to steal from them to pad your resume as Mayor.”
Ten months ago, Sprawl-Busters first reported the death of a Brazilian immigrant worker during a botched renovation job by an unlicensed crew inside a Walmart in Massachusetts.
Romulo de Oliveira Santos died at the age of 47 on the floor of a Walmart vision center in Walpole, Massachusetts. His muscles were charred, his skin was coagulated, and one-fifth of his body suffered second and third degree burns. There were bruises and cuts on his face, back, arms and hands. According to an autopsy, Santos had been electrocuted.
This week, the Boston Globe picked up the Santos story in its Business section, noting a similar job site injury and death at Walmart elsewhere in the country.
On the night of September 8, 2008, Santos was working as part of an inexperienced, unsupervised subcontract crew on a remodeling project at Walmart store #2103 on Providence Highway in Walpole. There was no properly licensed supervisor watching over crew members from Italo Masonries, for whom Santos worked.
Italo had never done demolition work before. Walmart hired a general contractor to oversee the reconstruction of its Vision Center, and that contractor has subbed out the interior demolition to Italo. Santos was working without licensed supervision.
In 2000, Santos came to America on a work visa to pursue a dream. He wanted to become an electronic technician. Santos enrolled in ESL classes to learn English, and began working on a cleaning crew. Santos would send some of his earnings back to the city of Volta Redonda, Brazil, where his family lived. He was 39 years old when he first entered the U.S. Eight years later, he was inside the Walpole Walmart working a late hour shift—his last.
The construction scene inside the Vision Center was a tangle of unlabeled wires and cords. Walmart had insisted that the remodeling job would proceed while the store remained open. On Santos' last night, the general contractor, electrical contractor, and Italo Masonry all left no supervisors at the site. But several light circuits were left on, because the renovations could be done quicker and easier by leaving the area "hot."
One junction box at the top of a wall was left "hot." Santos arrived at the site just before 10:30 pm—a time when most Walmart shoppers were home in bed. Santos and his coworkers were not warned that a 227-volt circuit powering the overhead lights in the Vision Center had been left live. Santos had no reason to expect that wires behind the walls were hot. It was normal practice that live wires would be clearly marked and labeled, to avoid lethal danger.
One of Santos' coworkers began tearing down a wall that had been marked for demolition. The crew member, wielding a reciprocating saw, cut through the live wire at the top of the wall. The lights went out, leaving the whole crew in the darkened Vision Center. The crew began to exit the site, when Santos came in contact with the live wire.
According to witnesses at the scene, Santos moaned in pain, and fell to the floor in between a scissors lift and the wall. A crew member rushed to his side, but Santos died within minutes—badly burned from the trauma.
The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issued Walmart an immediate stop work order, and listed numerous violations of federal safety regulations. "Workers were exposed to hazards of arc-flash and arc blast while working on energized parts of the circuit breaker panels without proper personal protective equipment," OSHA wrote. "Employees were exposed to electric shock hazards while performing . . . tasks without de-energizing the circuits."
Attorney Brian A. Joyce of the Joyce Law Group, the firm that is handling a civil lawsuit against Walmart on behalf of the Santos family, says that Romulo's death could have been avoided if Walmart had held its general contractor to its contractual obligation to permit only properly licensed and qualified subcontractors to demolish the Vision Center. Joyce notes that the general contractor has a rap sheet with OSHA for hiring unlicensed contractors.
"Walmart's callous indifference to the safety of construction workers at the Walpole store is not an isolated incident," Joyce told Sprawl-Busters. Similar construction-related deaths have occurred in Texas, Nebraska, and Indiana. OSHA has cited Walmart in numerous other cases for its negligence in protecting workers.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
"In its ruthless quest to cut prices and maximize profits," Joyce charges, "Walmart allows cutting corners, especially when it comes to safety, and is willing to risk the lives of construction workers to save on costs. When the sadly predictable accidents occur, Walmart remorselessly opposes attempts by the surviving family members to discover what happened, and to seek justice for their lost loved ones."
The family of Romulo de Oliveira Santos has waited for almost three and a half years to see justice done in this case. The sudden death of their son who traveled to America was tragic enough—but Walmart's response since the accident has made the family's ordeal even harder to accept. On February 14, 2011, the Boston law firm hired by Walmart acknowledged in a letter to the Joyce law firm that "an offer of $25,000 was made" to the Santos family by the retailer and its general contractor as compensation for Santos' death. That was one year ago. There has been no movement by Walmart since then.
Attorney Joyce says Walmart's financial offer is a slap in the face to the Santos family: "If Mr. Santos—who was in excellent health when this tragedy occurred—had worked until his retirement age, he could have had another $1 million in salary alone. Apparently $25,000 is the value that Walmart puts on this man's life."
An everyday low price for a life—from the company that made its fortune on cheap imported products—like the labor of Romulo de Oliveira Santos.
Readers are urged to call Walmart customer service at 1-800-WALMART to leave the following message: "I'm calling to urge Walmart to settle the case of the subcontracted worker who was electrocuted in your Walpole, Massachusetts store. Your company should pay the family of Mr. Santos a sum that fairly represents the lost wages and benefits Santos would have earned had he not made the mistake of working at Walmart in unsafe conditions."
News that Walmart soon will be removing its "people greeters" from the mouth of every store across America was ironic given how hard it was for Sam Walton to get them there in the first place.
According to Tom Coughlin, Walmart's former COO and Vice Chairman of the Board [who defrauded his company and pled guilty in 2007 to six felony counts of wire fraud and filing false tax returns] Walton had to "throw fits" for a year and a half before greeters were accepted.
"Sam just kept pushing and pushing and pushing," Coughlin wrote in Made in America, Walton's 1992 autobiography. "Every week, every meeting, he'd talk about greeters...Gradually he wore everybody down and got his way."
Walton apparently stumbled onto a greeter at a small Walmart in Louisiana in 1980. The greeter, who Couglin called an"older gentleman," explained to Walton that he had a "dual purpose: to make people feel good about coming in, and to make sure people weren't walking back out the entrance with merchandise they hadn't paid for."
The manager of that Louisiana Walmart was trying to reduce shrinkage at the store—shop-lifting. "He didn't want to intimidate the honest customers by posting a guard at the door, but he wanted to leave a clear message that if you came in and stole, someone was there who would see it."
Apparently Walton was smitten with the double-agent role of the greeter: the 'hello' coming in, the 'cop' going out. "Sam thought that was the greatest idea he'd ever heard of." Coughlin remembers. He claims Mr. Sam was vindicated years later when he walked into a Kmart and was welcomed by a people greeter. Now many major retailers post these comedian cops near the front entrance.
Sam Walton himself did not talk much publicly about the cop side of the greeters. In his book. Walton noted that "some of our people greeters...use their high profile positions to have a little fun." Like the greeter in Huntsville, Arkansas who used to dress up in costumes for local folk holidays like Hawgfest. Walton described the greeter as an example of how his company liked to "thrive on a lot of the traditions of small town America, especially parades with marching bands, cheerleaders, drill teams and floats." And Greeters.
But now the fun is over. Sam Walton's "greatest idea" is dead—apparently a victim of the recession—several thousand greeters are coming in from the cold, to circulate around the store, helping customers find cheap Chinese underwear, and other useful functions.
Thus ends the 32 year run of the Greeter. Like most concepts at Walmart, the Greeter was not what it appeared to be on the surface. Most shoppers at Walmart understood that the smiley folks in the vest with "How May I Help You?" on the back were just disguised members of the loss prevention team at Walmart—a reminder that cheap goods not only attract shoppers, they attract criminals as well.
If, as Tom Coughlin says, Sam Walton wanted to use greeters to send "a warm, friendly message to the good customer," it didn't work. Walmart has been called many things over the years, but "warm and friendly" is not one of them. It's impossible to make a 200,000 square foot superstore with concrete floors "warm and friendly." The Greeter was a contrived, awkward position—a stand-up comedian at a sliding glass door.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
If Walmart wants to convince the public that it is an inviting place to shop, it can begin by treating its own workers better. Every time Walmart "associates" get their pay check, they are reminded what a disappointing experience it is to put on a Walmart vest.
Happier employees would truly brighten up the store like no greeter ever could. No need for marching bands or drill teams. Walmart workers need to be greeted with a bigger paycheck—enough to keep their family off food stamps and Medicaid.
Knowing that Walmart cares more about the people who do its work, would go a long way towards making people "feel good about coming in."
Coughlin admits that when Sam Walton first tried to push the people greeters idea, "a lot of people thought he'd lost his mind." Looking back, those people were probably right.
Readers are urged to call Walmart Customer Service at 1-800-WALMART with the following message: "Instead of having someone smile at me when I enter your store, how about cheering up your workers by giving them more take home pay. Better paid workers might brighten up the whole store experience."
Walmart Canada has run into aggressive opposition right in the town that serves as its headquarters in Mississauga, Ontario. The following site fight report was sent to Sprawl-Busters by activists who are battling a Walmart developer in their community:
Several south Mississauga ratepayers’ groups say they'll be out in force on Wednesday night (February 1st) at an open house regarding a controversial development planned for Lakeview.
The plan by Trinity Developments, which owns 14.5 acres of land at the northeast corner of Lakeshore Rd. E. and Enola Ave., is to open either a Walmart or a Target as part of a phased, mixed-use development. Trinity has yet to file a formal application with the City of Mississauga regarding the development.
Trinity will host the open house at 501 Lakeshore Rd. E., Unit A-10, from 6-9 p.m.
Several community groups, among them the Lakeview Ratepayers' Association (LRA), Town of Port Credit Association (TOPCA) and Citizens for a Livable Lakeshore (CALL)—newly-launched to fight the development—are crying foul over the timing of the meeting. LRA president Scott Kletke said they were given only a week’s notice, and he’s not expecting much to come out of the event.
“They are going to show us pretty pictures of parents holding kids’ hands and shopping in familial bliss. It will look compelling, even attractive, but remember that the difference between our vision and theirs is that the big-box mega-store will kill our retail community and shatter the dream of real Main Street mom-and-pop community-level retail,” he said.
TOPCA and the Mississauga Residents’ Associations Network (MIRANET) spokesperson Dorothy Tomiuk said she found it “curious” the open house was called for the same night as MIRANET’s long-scheduled and publicized annual general meeting. Ratepayers’ representatives at MIRANET, she said, will now be forced to make alternate arrangements. Still, Tomiuk, who’s doing an e-mail blast to help get the word out, is confident ratepayers will be well represented. “We’ll find a way to make sure some executives will be there to make our concerns known,” she said.
The open house will consist of a 15-minute presentation by Trinity staff and experts will be available for one-on-one discussion. It’s unclear whether there will be an open question-and-answer session.
CALL, whose mandate “is to give voice to the citizens of Lakeview and Port Credit who feel that a large-format retail store does not fit the community’s long-standing plan for revitalization”—as its first public action—is organizing a two-kilometre protest march. It starts at 5:45 p.m. and proceeds from the Port Credit Lighthouse (105 Lakeshore Rd. W.) to the open house location.
“This project ignores the ground-breaking and award-winning Lakeview Legacy Project and tries to bypass years of citizen participation and good City planning,” said CALL spokesperson Jen McAneney. Despite vociferous community opposition, Trinity says it's committed to an improved Lakeview.
“We are proposing to redevelop an underutilized site, which currently provides little economic activity, in an entirely asphalt setting, into a site that supports and invests in the region’s continued renaissance,” Trinity said in a statement last week announcing the open house.WHAT YOU CAN DO
These kinds of “open house” events by the developer gives opponents a chance to turn the event into their open house, by flooding the event with people against the plan, each one wearing a bright sticker on their lapel, “Sink the Lakeview Big Box.”
According to the developer, Trinity's portfolio currently exceeds 14,000,000 square feet in size. An additional 8,700,000 square feet has been developed and sold by the company. Trinity currently has fifteen large format and four community shopping centers under various stages of planning, development and construction. In addition, the company is developing four urban mixed-use centers totaling over 1.2 million square feet.
Trinity claims that this massive development will create 600 full and part time jobs, and $3.25 million in taxes. These numbers are gross figures, and do not net out the jobs and taxes that will be lost at smaller retailers in the trade area. This project includes at least 7 retail buildings, the largest being 97,828 square feet. It also includes 290 residential units in a 20 story high rise, and enough parking for just over 1,000 cars.
Readers who want to help the residents of Mississauga are urged to email Mississauga's Mayor, Hazel McCallion, at firstname.lastname@example.org
with the following message:
“Dear Mayor McCallion,
Good land use planning begins with neighborhood buy-in. Your massive mixed use project in Mississauga has drawn considerable fire from the people who already live there—some direct residential abutters.
This project is much too intense for the surrounding area, and is incompatible with its neighbors. Instead of pursuing a win/lose scenario, it’s time to sit down with neighbors and ask them what they really want for a neighbor, and what they mean by a ‘renaissance’ for the area."
To contact the citizen’s group CALL, email: email@example.com
Pagosa Springs, CO
The small town of Pagosa Springs, Colorado has a big problem. Just before Christmas, the media began reporting that a 93,000 square foot big box store was coming to town. The store turned out to be Walmart, and that announcement provoked a citizens group to spring up, called Pagosa First. By January 3, 2012, the Walmart project was out in the open, as the retailer made a presentation to the Pagosa Town Council.
The Town of Pagosa Springs describes itself as "a scenic community known for healing waters" because of its natural hot springs. The battle against Walmart is getting as hot as those healing waters. Pagosa is located half an hour west of the Continental Divide—and a major divide has now formed over this sprawling big box project.
Pagosa Springs is surrounded by the San Juan National Forest and Southern Ute Indian lands. The town relies heavily on its eco-tourism attractions, including the San Juan River that flows through the center of town. "With an average of 300 days of sunshine and four definitive seasons," the town's website says, "Pagosa Springs is an extraordinary place to live!"
Walmart apparently also sees Pagosa as an extraordinary place to build a store. The Pagosa Sun newspaper reported on December 21st that the Town Manager had been in discussions with an unnamed big box store regarding an abatement of development fees for projects larger than 25,000 square feet—an invitation to sprawl if there ever was one.
Last year, at the urging of the Town Manager, voters repealed zoning restrictions that placed added requirements on proposed developments exceeding 40,000 square feet—including a requirement for economic impact studies. The Town Manager argued that Pagosa was losing millions in sales tax because Pagosa residents were buying merchandise at stores outside of the town.
But the actual impact study cited by the Manager showed that a big box retailer would "severely damage" local retailers, according to The Sun, and "negatively alter the socio-economic fabric of the community."
The newspaper reported that Walmart officials had flow into town to scout sites in Pagosa since the summer of 2011. In January, residents in Pagosa contacted Sprawl-Busters, reporting that "we are just beginning to fight the good fight. Walmart just purchased the property. We had the first meeting of our stop Walmart group which we are calling 'Pagosa First' last night."
At the end of December, the Pagosa Sun interviewed the director of a Small Business Development Center at Fort Lewis College. “It’s a tough situation for small towns,” the development official warned. “The size of the facility is a consideration. In small communities that have a large tourism base, businesses survive better than small communities with a largely agricultural base. Independent retailers will be affected, no doubt. You can be sure that you’ll take a pretty good hit to the diversity of retail in your town.” Walmart asserts that its new store will create 175 to 200 new jobs—but that is a gross figure, which fails to net out the retail jobs that will be lost elsewhere in the Pagosa trade area. WHAT YOU CAN DO
Walmart is slated to hold an "open house" on their proposal on February 16th. Such events are often a dog-and-pony presentation, with the developer's engineer, architect, and other consultants informally answering questions at different "stations" in the room—an opportunity for Walmart to identify supportive area residents to add to their email list.
At such corporate events, citizens groups have in the past flooded the meeting with opponents, who wear bright nametage identifying their opposition to the plan, and giving Walmart officials a long list of questions to formally address, turning the event into an opportunity for opponents to show their concerns about the plan. Opponents also release a statement summarizing their objections to the project.
One Town Council member told the public on January 3rd: “We will not entertain public comment. We will instead utilize a diplomatic option establishing civil organization and protocol in a public forum setting at the community center." The town is clearly trying to manage the public's involvement by agreeing to Walmart open house format. Walmart said: "We do and will commit to public discussions. We do see this just simply as the beginning of a long dialog with the Town of Pagosa Springs and the public at large, public discussions.”
Readers are urged to email Pagosa Springs Mayor Ross Aragon at: firstname.lastname@example.org
with the following message:
Dear Mayor Aragon,
Inviting Walmart into Pagosa Springs is like inviting a cannibal to dinner. Most of Walmart's sales will come from existing merchants. The scale and location of this project is inappropriate for a small town which leans heavily on eco-tourism to attract dollars to town.
Walmart's jobs claims are a gross figure—but you need to know the net impact of this project once you minus out the existing retail jobs at area merchants which will be lost.
This project is not an example of economic development, but rather economic displacement. A store the size of two footballs is also excessive, and the company should be urged to shrink its plans dramatically to fit the scale of other merchants in town.
Finally, no financial incentives—or fee breaks—need to be given to this wealthy corporation. This is a form of public welfare, and represents another perk given to large corporations at the expense of smaller merchants who are already at a significant competitive disadvantage to the retail giants.
All you will get out of this project is a shift of market share from existing merchants to Walmart. As Mayor, you should be leading the effort to reject the size and location of this inappropriate land use.
A change in Walmart’s corporate tax status in Massachusetts has triggered a volley of angry reactions from local officials across the state. The town reaction was brought to light recently in several media stories in Pittsfield, Oxford, and other municipalities.
Walmart currently has 49 stores in Massachusetts, including 12 superstores, 35 discount stores, and two Sam’s clubs. Some of these stores had been classified as “Limited Partnerships.” The entity of record in a number of cities and towns was “Walmart Stores East, LP.”
But in 2009, a new state law went into effect which included two provisions to close corporate loopholes. One provision, called “combined reporting,” is an accounting system that treats a company with many subsidiaries across many states as just one company, and taxes that company based on the percentage of its business that is in the state, as measured by where its property, payroll and sales are made.
As Sprawl-Busters explained in a story on April 24, 2008, Walmart hired three lobbying firms to fight combined reporting. The retailer paid $208,678 in 2007 to protect its lucrative tax loophole---five times what the company had spent the previous year on lobbying. In states which have only “separate reporting,” Walmart pays rent to itself through a maze of corporate subsidiaries created in November of 1996, including Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs). The rent appears as an expense on state tax forms, and is deducted from its taxable revenues. Walmart pays 2.5% of its gross sales monthly as rent to its own REIT, which then wires the money quarterly to a Walmart Property Company in the form of a dividend, which is then paid to Walmart Stores as a tax-exempt “dividends received.”
All of these transactions are handled through a “cash management agreement” between the parties. Neither the REIT nor the Property Company ever had any employees. The REITs don’t pay taxes, as long as they pay 90% of their income out in dividends to shareholders. In Walmart’s case, the REITs are owned by Walmart subsidiaries, which are registered in Delaware, a state that has no corporate income tax. Walmart gets the benefit of the rent expense, but also gets the benefit of the non-taxed dividend, on the same monies. The dividends escape taxation, and the original rent that created the dividends is deducted from taxable income in the states where the “expense” is incurred.This complex game makes it almost impossible for tax regulators to follow the money.
The second provision of the 2008 Massachusetts law, called “check the box,” requires that businesses must declare themselves as the same classification at the state level as the claim at the federal level. Because Walmart is classified as a corporation at the federal level, it had to reclassify all its Massachusetts stores as corporations also, not as Partnerships. Sprawl-Buster estimated that in 2006, Walmart used these tax dodges to avoid $5.4 million in state taxes. A Walmart spokesman told the Boston Globe, “Anytime there’s a lawful way to reduce our expenses and save money for our customers, we’re aware of it.”
It is not clear how many of Walmart’s stores in Massachusetts were still listed as Limited Partnerships, but Pittsfield, Oxford, Leicester and Ware all have complained to the media that their local revenues had been raided. A Walmart spokesman told the Worcester Telegram-Gazette that the loss of local revenue was the state’s fault: “Walmart is based in Arkansas, is incorporated in Delaware and files taxes as a corporation in Massachusetts. That’s been the case for years. A recently enacted state law adopted federal income tax rules that classify how Walmart and other companies are taxed. As a result, the law treats Walmart as a Massachusetts company for tax purposes.”
A spokesman for the Massachusetts Department of Revenue countered that as of January, 2009, Walmart had to declare its stores as either Limited Partnerships or Corporations. By choosing corporations, Walmart lowered its personal property taxes at many stores, because the state excise tax on corporate personal property is much lower than the local personal property tax levied by cities and towns.
DOR told Sprawl-Busters that the municipal personal property tax rate ranges from $12 to $30 per $1,000 valuation, compared to the state excise tax on personal property at only $2.60 per $1,000 valuation in state excise taxes. In Oxford, Leicester and Ware, Walmart paid a total of $277,548 in personal property taxes last year. Most of that sum is no longer taxable.
When the city council in Pittsfield, Massachusetts learned recently that the city was losing $187,000 in personal property taxes due to Walmart’s corporate status change, one city councilor stated: "I think that big box stores, and the benefit for Pittsfield, is negligible," Krol said.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
Walmart claims on its website that it pays $35.5 million in state and local taxes in Massachusetts. There is no way to independently verify this figure, because the amount that Walmart pays to the state as a corporation is private information. There is no way to compare the impact of the combined reporting law on Walmart's total tax bill—but it is clear that the shift from Partnership stores to Corporations will cost local communities hundreds of thousands of dollars in losr tax revenues.
This frustration drove local officials in the tiny town of Oxford, Massachusetts to vote unanimously this month to ask their state legislators to consider changing the tax code so that towns could benefit from personal property taxes. Such a change is not likely to happen, given the corporate lobby that would oppose it.
For the forseeable future, Walmart stores in many Massachusetts communities have become much less attractive financially than some local officials had hoped.
Readers are urged to cut and paste this article and email it to your local and city and town officials.