Saturday, February 07, 2009

Tax revolt: Gloucester, Bath, Augusta counties

Outrageous real estate assessments are not unique to Augusta County. Neighboring Bath County reassessed in April 2008 and had a revolt by citizens that resulted in terminating the appraisal company and doing away with the overly-inflated appraisals.

Gloucester County also had a tax revolt by its citizens after outrageous assessments in 2005 resulted in the Board of Supervisors passing by only one vote an agreement to pay the appraisal company.

In October 2007 the wrote Why was this shack assessed at $43,700 while a mansion was valued at $0? Inside Gloucester's latest reassessment — and it's not a pretty picture.

The article began:
Bob Hicks asked the real estate assessor hired by Gloucester County if he'd actually set foot on the York River islands before setting their value at more than $150,000.

Hicks knew the answer would be "No."

While Gloucester's land book said the islands, acquired by Hicks' grandfather in 1927, totaled 188 acres, Hicks knew what apparently the assessor did not:

The islands don't exist anymore. Over the decades, the river had pretty much swallowed them. The land today is "valueless," Hicks told county officials in a successful protest of the assessment.

Hicks' experience was not unusual or even among the most significant of what turned into myriad problems emerging from the 2005 reassessment of Gloucester County real estate.
The Gloucester County Board of Equilization stepped in:
In a report published after concluding its work, the Gloucester County Board of Equalization — a panel appointed by the Circuit Court after every reassessment to correct disparities in the new valuations — was highly critical of the private contractor whose firm did the reassessment. It blasted Blue Ridge Mass Appraisal for flubbing the job, and suggested the company may have fudged the results.

In his turn, the firm's president, David Hickey, denies that Blue Ridge cut any corners during the reassessment. Hickey claims his work was hampered by poorly maintained county land records and says Commissioner of the Revenue Kevin Wilson deliberately withheld essential information from the assessors. Even the Gloucester County Board of Equalization came under fire from business owners who objected when the board fixed higher values on their properties than they thought was fair.

The Gloucester Board of Supervisors, which was warned at the start that Gloucester was hiring the "lesser of two evils" to do the reassessment, ended up deeply divided over whether to pay Blue Ridge or reject its work. The 4-3 vote to pay the firm, said then-Chairwoman Louise Theberge, reflected the board majority's desire to put the matter to rest.
Was there discontent with the four supervisors who voted in the majority?
Ultimately Gloucester softened the original sticker shock of the inflated revaluation — a jump that averaged 80 percent — by lowering its real estate tax rate from 95 cents to 57 cents per $100 of assessed value.

In a 4-3 vote, the supervisors defeated a move to lower the rate to 53 cents, which would have nearly equaled the pre-reassessment tax bills.
Today comes this interesting tidbit from WHSV TV-3 out of Harrisonburg:
The House of Delegates has passed legislation that would prohibit judges from sanctioning citizens who petition for the removal of public officials.

Without debate, the House passed Republican Del. Harvey Morgan's bill 93-3 Friday.

Morgan is from Gloucester County, where a judge recently ordered a group of citizens to pay $80,000 in legal fees after they unsuccessfully sought to remove four county supervisors from office.

Circuit Judge Westbrook J. Parker's order outraged free-speech advocacy groups, which have vowed to support the petitioners' appeal to the Virginia Supreme Court.

The judge said the petitioners misused the judicial process for political gain.
In the eastern part of the Commonwealth, DJ McGuire at the Right-Wing Liberal wrote What if you held a tax revolt and EVERYBODY came:
From what I can tell (thanks to WVN), the only penalty Augusta would face from suspending assessments one year would be $38,000 in lost dividend payments from Alcoholic Beverage Control. Given that the state shouldn’t be in the hard liquor business anyway, the Augusta BOS can chalk that up to the price of free-market principles, suspend all assessments, and find a firm that doesn’t take a year and a half to determine property values. From there, do assessments every two years, rather than four.

The above plan would thus have everyone assessed at the same temporal point in the market, and the new cycle would prevent things like this from having a lasting impact. As it is, the poor souls who had their property checked in the summer of 2007 would be stuck with a laughable assessment until 2013.

The question is, will the Board of Supervisors (especially the four Republicans who make up the majority) join with the lone Democrat - Tracy Pyles, who continues to make my late grandfather proud - and do what is right? Or are they blinded by the revenue windfall?

We will see. We will all see. As I’ve mentioned before, Augusta is a test case. If a county this Republican gets whacked with a tax hike, counties and cities all around the Commonwealth will use it as an example to browbeat their taxpaying constituents into submission.

That cannot be allowed to happen.
The eyes of Virginia are on Augusta County.

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