One of the biggest aggravations — and financial hardships — local governments place on taxpaying families and individuals is the assessments on their houses. Not only are local property tax rates often much too high, the assessments are as well, resulting in a double infliction of financial pain. Of course, by law, localities must allow homeowners an appeals process if a homeowner thinks the assessment is too high. But, as usual in Virginia, we have laws to remedy a problem that are nothing more than window dressing, so that legislators can say, "We have a law," (and plaster it all over campaign brochures). In fact, it's said Virginia has laws to prevent solutions (such as our restrictive charter school law).
Virginia’s assessment appeals process is such a case and is counterproductive to a fair appeal. It’s almost like an IRS appeal where you are guilty until proven innocent. In the case of an assessment appeal, you must prove the assessor wrong — he or she has no burden to prove your property is valued at fair market value. It is such a stacked system that most aggrieved homeowners don’t even attempt to appeal and end up paying more than they should of their hard-earned income in local property taxes.
However, now there's a chance to reform this overly slanted playing field in favor of the government to a level playing field for all homeowners. Delegate Sal Iaquinto (R-84, Virginia Beach) is patroning HB 570. It passed the House 86-13 and will be voted on in the Senate Finance Committee Wednesday.
According to fiscal impact statement attached to HB 570 (and these statements normally sink a bill, so it's nice to have one that offers clarity on the subject) the bill would . . .
shift the burden of proof from the taxpayer to the assessor when the taxpayer appeals the assessment of real property to a Board of Equalization or to a circuit court, and would remove the presumption that the assessor’s valuation of real property is correct. The assessor would have the burden of proving that the property in question is valued at its fair market value or that the assessment is uniform in its application, or that the assessment is otherwise valid or legal.
In addition, currently, in all such cases, the taxpayer has the burden of proving that the property in question is valued at more than its fair market value — and is . . .
required to produce substantial evidence that the valuation determined by the assessor is erroneous and was not arrived at in accordance with generally accepted appraisal practice in order to receive relief.
Perhaps there is nothing in Virginia more contrary to American due process than our process to appeal unjust property assessments — assessments localities use to milk its residents for their unquenchable thirst for more tax revenue. Wednesday may be the day Virginia takes a big step toward reversing that and not just "having a law" for the sake of having a law, but having a law that puts its citizens first.