With permission, here is the column in its entirety or check out Supes duped by legal jargon at the Augusta Free Press:
February 25, 2009
The newspaper headlines suggesting that the Augusta County Board of Supervisors’ hands are tied with respect to legal remedies regarding the widely disputed general property reassessment come across to me as misleading.
It’s not exactly breaking news to me that the county attorney, Pat Morgan, would say that he can’t find any “lawful way,” as he wrote in a report to the Board of Supervisors presented on Monday, that the Board can halt or adjust the reassessment. I say that because the strategy offered by the single member of the Board of Supervisors, Pastures Supervisor Tracy Pyles, who has been advocating for the large contingent of county residents who have been fighting this fight, is not at all a “lawful” one, but that has been the point all along.
Pyles was the first to point out that while the county is indeed required to complete a reassessment under the State Code, the penalty for not doing so appears to be relatively minor in the form of the loss of local revenues from the sale of alcholic beverages under the Virginia ABC system, at a total cost to county taxpayers of roughly $40,000.
In that context, then, I wouldn’t expect Morgan to say anything other than what he said in his report. I mean, after all, he’s a lawyer, right? He can’t recommend in writing or otherwise that his client willfully break the law, as Pyles is suggesting as a course of action. He’d risk his law license in so doing.
Same for the part of the story involving an attorney general’s opinion in a similar case originating in Dinwiddie County from earlier this year. The Board of Supervisors there also wanted to block a reassessment that had come under fire, and the opinion of the attorney general’s office used language akin to what Morgan offered to Augusta supervisors. “(T)he Dinwiddie County Board of Supervisors cannot prevent, in a legally enforceable manner, the duly appointed professional assessor for a general reassessment of Dinwiddie County’s real estate from complying with Section 58.1-3300 of the Code of Virginia, 1950, as amended, because the Board of Supervisors disagrees with the results of such general reassessment,” the opinion concluded, again not surprisingly.
I have read and reread that opinion, and did not find any reference to the penalties that could be incurred were the Board in Dinwiddie to violate the terms of the Code applicable to reassessments.
I e-mailed Morgan late Tuesday night to ask what to me is the salient question in this instance - namely, is Pyles right that the only penalty to the county for failing to comply with the Code on the reasssessment the loss of $40,000 in ABC revenues?
Morgan got back to me on that point early this morning.
“There is another possible penalty found in 22.1-97 of the Code of Virginia, dealing with school funding,” Morgan wrote in his e-mail reply. "As you are probably aware, funding from the state is based on what is called a composite index. The State looks at many factors to determine a locality’s fair share of the costs of educating our children. One of the factors that goes into determining the composite index for a locality is if its real estate values are correct. Under 22.1-97 of the Code of Virginia, if the Department of Education determines that a locality is not appropriated sufficient funds, it can notify the Attorney General and he or she can petition for a writ of mandamus directing the locality to make such appropriations as are required by law.”
Interesting point there. A counterpoint, not legal in response to Morgan, but political to the Board of Supervisors, is that it would appear that this composite-index issue could also bite us another way if the reassessments are allowed to stand.
As has been pointed out elsewhere in the local news media, the average property in Augusta is now in Chesterfield County range with our new reassessment. The problem that we will face is not having anything close to Chesterfield County’s economic base or its tax rate. Get this - Chesterfield’s property-tax rate is 95 cents per $100 assessed value. Augusta is currently at 58 cents, and if the reassessment is allowed to stand with the tax relief to come from a reduction in the rate aimed at equalizing things, we could be in the 50-cent range when all is said and done.
And what does that mean? You got it. We get Chesterfield County-level money from the state for education with a tax rate about half what Chesterfield assesses its citizens to make up our local share.
The second part of Morgan’s answer was also helpful.
“To date, I could find only one County that failed to reassess when lawfully required,” he wrote in his e-mail. “That was Pittsylvania in the mid-’70s. The Board there followed a faulty interpretation of a statute that allowed Counties to alter the reassessment schedule if they had been subject of an annexation suit. In a formal opinion, the Attorney General determined that the County had violated the code, but also concluded that it would receive its ABC funding when a reassessment completed. The law concerning adjustments due to annexation suits has since been repealed,” Morgan wrote.
So we might not even lose our ABC revenues if we go this route.