Monday, March 23, 2009

Assessing reassessments

The reassessment battles that have been raging in Augusta County appear to be nearing an end. The Board of Supervisors voted 5-2 to accept the reassessment and move toward drafting a budget as required by state law. The supervisors are all committed to lowering the tax rate and will probably do so in a way that produces a low single digit percentage gain in overall county revenues. Yes, some landowners will see higher tax increases but others may actually find their taxes go down. When tax bills go out in May there will be a burst of anger from some but most residents will find their bills haven't unreasonably increased.
In a way, the reassessment brouhaha is part of a larger populist anger fueled by the fears and uncertainties of our economic downturn. We're seeing it in reactions to the AIG bonuses and outrage over Bernie Madoff, even among those of us who didn't lose a dime in his giant ponzi scheme. Newsweek has an excellent cover story about populist outrage in American history.
But, back to Augusta County where some lingering playlets will grab more headlines:
  • Francis Chester will file his lawsuit, the judge will find it groundless, and toss it out. Mr. Chester will declare victory.
  • Residents pushing a recall of the supervisors will find it tough going. They like to cite the "10,000 signatures" Mr. Chester got, but his petition was basically a PR campaign and met virtually none of the safeguards required of a petition required for a legally binding procedure such as a recall. Besides, Virginia law does not permit a recall in the same sense as California and other states. So, even if they get the required minimum number of legal signatures, the petitions go before a judge to determine if any supervisors are guilty of misuse of office, neglect of duty, or incompetence. They aren't. End of story.
Moving forward, what are some lessons learned from all this? A few reflections on reassessment and a couple suggestions for the future:
  • When times are tough, people are fearful, and taxes are the topic, demagogues find fertile conditions. Perhaps they perform a useful service by providing an emotional outlet.
  • We should never confuse the thrill of politics with good governance as some like the former local GOP chair and his blogging cohort have done. Watching them at the March 11 public hearing was akin to watching parents exhibiting bad sportsmanship at a local high school basketball game.
  • Many people who spoke at the public hearing seem to think the assessors are setting market values, when the opposite is actually true. One friend wondered how he can sell his now multimillion dollar farm to a child or grandchild. He can, if he wants to sell it below market value. But, if he needs the cash for his retirement, he'll probably put the farm on the open market and get the highest price he can - which would likely be above the assessment.
  • The firm hired to conduct the reassessments should not participate in the political fray. It is okay to explain the technical and procedural aspects of reassessment, it is not okay to engage in political shouting and name calling.
  • People who give their time and energy to serve on local committees and boards, such as the Board of Assessors, deserve our thanks, not our scorn.
  • It is interesting that Republicans who usually push privatization, don't much like the private firm, Blue Ridge Mass Appraisals, who conducted the reassessment. They probably won't like this either - a better approach than hiring out for reassessments would be in-house appraisals by local governments. Since periodic reassessment is required under the the Code of Virginia, the General Assembly should provide the technology and training to assist counties and cities in establishing a politically shielded office to conduct reassessments.
  • Some have suggested reassessing every six years rather than the four year cycle which Augusta County now uses (some localities are on a two year cycle). Changing to a six year reassessment cycle is a very bad idea for a couple of compelling reasons. The sticker shock is bad enough after four years - can residents imagine the jump if they'd been comparing to 2003 rather than 2005? Conducing reassessments every two years would reduce the sticker shock and likely produce more accurate results. Perhaps even more important - a six year reassessment cycle would make it longer than the four year term of office of a supervisor with undemocratic electoral and accountability consequences. 
Time to move on to other things - like writing a lean budget that has a lower tax rate while protecting the essential core services of public education, public safety, and public health. I hope the supervisors and the people can put the past behind them and move forward on this difficult task.

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