While running for the County Executive position the first time, the current holder of that office was unrelenting in his harsh criticism of the 2002 assessment values, arguing they were hopelessly inaccurate and promising to fix them. Then 2005 rolled around and a new assessment was performed as mandated by County ordinance to be used for the 2006 tax year. Despite the statement of the Chief Assessor that the 2005 values were much improved from the 2002 numbers and met International Association of Assessment Officers standards for accuracy, the Executive adamantly refused to use the new assessment values.
Two court cases ensued; in May of 2005, Judge Wettick threw out the County’s misguided attempt to install a bracket system to determine assessment changes and ordered the County to repair the remaining systematic errors in the 2005 reassessment and use the new set of values for 2006. At that point, the County decided to ignore the Judge’s order and adopted 2002 values as a base year, locking in permanently all the inequities in the 2002 assessments. The Executive argued that appeals had largely corrected problems with the 2002 values. Of course, his argument ignored the fact that owners of properties that were under assessed were unlikely to appeal leaving the serious unfairness problem in place. Properties that were still over assessed or accurately assessed would continue having to pay more than their fair share of taxes. And with assessments frozen for the last five years, those inequities have undoubtedly grown.
A second court case in 2007 produced a ruling by Judge Wettick that the County’s base year was unconstitutional and that the County should prepare new assessments for 2009—another order ignored by the County. That decision was appealed to the Supreme Court where the Justices ruled the County’s base year was unconstitutional and ordered Judge Wettick to supervise the correction of the flawed assessments.
At a recent hearing before Wettick, the County solicitor argued it will require two or three more years to carry out a reassessment. At the same hearing, the former Chief Assessor—who previously declared the 2005 numbers were accurate enough to meet international standards—testified that the 2005 values could not be used as a starting point to provide an interim update of assessments because employing the 2005 numbers could perpetuate inequities owing to the changes in values that have occurred during the last four years. The unstated—and obviously invalid—argument is that it would better to leave the far more inequitable 2002 values in place for two or three more years—the time the County solicitor argues will be necessary to do a reassessment.
Thus, we find County officials declaring the 2005 numbers, which were superior in accuracy to the 2002 values, to be unusable while the seriously flawed 2002 numbers, so described by the County Executive, are to be left in place for at least two and maybe three years during which time the long running inequities continue and perhaps get worse. Where do people go to get their over payment of taxes returned to them? There is no such place so the harm being done is irreparable.
The mess we find ourselves in has come about as a result of the unwillingness of the County’s elected officials to carry out their duty of maintaining an accurate and fair set of assessments to be used for tax purposes. Multiple court rulings have been ignored and dilatory tactics are still being used to prevent an accurate, updated assessment being performed despite a Supreme Court ruling that the County’s base year system violates the uniformity clause of the state Constitution.
And now yet another court decision is awaited. There can be only one. Since the inequities locked in by the base year have been in effect for several years already, nothing less than immediate remedial action can be acceptable. Therefore, the Judge should rule that tax bills sent out for 2010 must be based on an accurate set of assessed values. And he should further rule that if updated, accurate assessments are not available at the time tax notices are scheduled to be mailed and the County and other taxing bodies elect to send out notices anyway, taxpayers will be under no obligation to pay the tax. Unless or until an accurate set of assessments are ready for use the order will remain in effect.
Perhaps that would induce the County do quit dawdling and wasting time and get about fixing the problem.
Jake Haulk, Ph.D., President
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