Friday, February 13, 2009

Augusta real estate assessments need a closer look

Giving a tip of the hat to Augusta County Supervisor Tracy Pyles and Churchville lawyer Francis Chester, the Waynesboro News Virginian's editorial today confirms what many already knew: 2009 real estate assessments were conducted during the peak of the housing bubble.

These two men, both mavericks in their own right, are finally being recognized for standing their ground and fighting for the taxpayers of Augusta County. As the NV so eloquently put it:
It is fortuitous for Augusta County taxpayers that among noggins of granite, Tracy Pyles’ is made of thicker stuff than most. The Pastures District supervisor, who has carved an image of himself as a maverick (John McCain, comparatively, is piffle), for months has toted tirelessly the torch of property owners aggrieved by the reassessment. His half-dozen fellow supervisors have brandished stubborn befuddlement like a shield, warding off the whistling arrows of common sense. At last, Pyles and taxpaying fist-shakers may be getting through.
While property values have decreased in neighboring Albemarle and further east in Chesterfield County, and while the housing market dipped locally and hundreds of jobs were lost from the SWAC area, the lone voice of Mr. Pyles tried to warn fellow supervisors of the impending train wreck. Even as he was shunned by his peers on the board, he continued his lonely quest to research the facts on behalf of voters.

A meeting of Augusta Citizens Against Unfair Assessments on February 3 brought out 600 county residents who were outraged by their high real estate assessments, many of them farmers and landowners in the western part of Augusta including Mr. Pyles' Pastures District.

At a time when transparency in government is being touted in Richmond and elsewhere, Augusta seems to be shrouded in dark clouds. Residents have reported going to assessment reviews and asking for work sheets that were supposed to be submitted for each assessment only to be told they needed to retrieve them from Blue Ridge Mass Appraisal (BRMA), the company that conducted the appraisals. At Blue Ridge Mass Appraisal they reportedly were told the work sheets were available from the Government Center.

An email from another resident reported that his assessment review appointment had been cancelled due to "lack of interest." I urged him to follow up to be sure there was no misunderstanding somewhere along the way.

Residents were given only two weeks to make appointments for reviews of their assessments. Many missed what they considered a short deadline that gave the appearance of the county trying to quickly open-and-shut the issue.

There seems to be a stunning lack of information available for residents who want to know what information was used by Blue Ridge Mass Appraisal to arrive at property values.

Mr. Pyles wants transparency in place as was evident by the motion he made at Wednesday's BOS meeting requesting sales data used by Blue Ridge Mass Appraisal, and he wants the county attorney to look into retribution for delaying new assessments and keeping the 2004 values for now:
Suspecting Blue Ridge still did not have the numbers right, Pyles has pushed for another delay, throwing his support behind local lawyer and sheep farmer Francis Chester’s push to roll back values to 2005. At Pyles’ request, county Attorney Pat Morgan will review legal options for delaying the reassessment.
But a residue of recalcitrant thickness remains. County school board Chairman David Shiflett showed up at the meeting Wednesday to urge supervisors to proceed with the reassessment and to restore slashed money to the county school budget. Be reminded, Chairman Shiflett, there’s a recession on, which requires tightened spending. Let schools and government join the hard reality occupied by the rest of world.

Meanwhile, Riverheads Supervisor Nancy Sorrells took to rhetorical finger-wagging at the idea of reining in the runaway train that is the reassessment process. Supervisors, she said, have gone as far as they can legally in delaying the reassessment.

Well, yes. But what Sorrells neglected to mention is that the state penalty for failing to approve a reassessment in the mandated time is the equivalent of a flick to the nose. Augusta would lose its share of alcohol sales profits from the state, which would amount to less than $40,000 annually. Call us hopeless optimists, but we suspect a county that spent more than $170 million on schools and government last year can withstand the loss of $40,000.

This is particularly true given the fact that Pyles and others – including us – have raised questions about the accuracy of the assessment numbers. The sales figures indicate what an awareness of circumstances suggests, that the market’s health has taken a turn for the worse, which should be reflected in values.
Questions are being asked ... answers are requested. This story will continue. Interested in becoming involved?
Join the email list -- Want a petition to sign or circulate? Want to be added to the email list to stay informed of the assessment issue? Want to be informed of meetings and updates? Send an email and I will add you to the growing list of Augusta County residents plugged into the news.

March 11, 2009 -- Please plan to attend the Board of Supervisors meeting at 7 pm at the Government Center in Verona. Petitions will be turned in to the supervisors at that time. Those wishing to speak may address the Board. Send a message to the supervisors by showing up, and encourage others to do the same.

Saturday, Feb. 14 -- Petitions will be available at Tractor Supply in Staunton from 10 am-3 pm. Please stop by and say hello and sign the petition.

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