It started with a click, an inadvertent camera flash and a burst of anger and apparent bullying by the chairman of Loudoun County’s Board of Equalization. It ended with a quiet bit of legislating in Richmond during the recent session that turned control of that board over to the Loudoun Board of Supervisors, and in just a few months completed a huge revision of the way property is valued and taxed in America’s richest county.
In December, the Board of Supervisors turned the tax assessment function over to the commissioner of the revenue, having fired the county assessor who worked under them, Todd Kaufman, months earlier. The commissioner of the revenue is a single elected official who oversees assessment in most Virginia counties but had relinquished that job in Loudoun years ago. For those home or business owners who don’t like their property tax assessment, they can appeal to the Board of Equalization. That board is appointed by the circuit court of each county in Virginia, including Loudoun. But in February, both houses of the General Assembly unanimously passed a bill adding a new section to the law that grants Loudoun the ability to appoint the Board of Equalization. Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) signed the bill in March, and it goes into effect July 1.
Theoretically, this could play out well for Loudoun taxpayers while maintaining a separation of powers. The revenue commissioner now oversees assessments and is one person (rather than the nine-person Board of Supervisors) who can be blamed and voted out if he or she does a poor job. And the Board of Supervisors now oversees the Board of Equalization, which previously had almost no oversight because the courts were hesitant to meddle with a body whose decisions might come before them on appeal. The supervisors will continue to set the tax rate, but they no longer control the person who imposes that rate.
“There were a lot of transparency and serious operational questions about the way that the Board of Equalization had been operating,” Supervisor Matt Letourneau (R-Dulles) said. “To many of us, it became clear there was not accountability. We were concerned about how they were operating, what they were charging. We had reports of meetings not being recorded or the recorder turned off. That’s all stuff that can’t happen when you’re dealing with a public entity.”
Letourneau said the supervisors will always have to “battle the perception that we’re going to control assessments. But if we have a Board of Equalization that’s transparent, that follows the rules, holds open meetings, and we appoint good people, hopefully this will work well.”
J. Scott Littner, the chairman of the Board of Equalization, did not respond to a request for comment. His term, along with the terms of two other members of the five-person board, expires in December, which should give the Board of Supervisors the opportunity to remake the Board of Equalization with people willing to do the public’s business openly.
It was Littner’s actions, at a Board of Equalization meeting in June 2011, that started a battle between his board and the supervisors, cost taxpayers $83,000 in legal fees and spurred the supervisors to seek the legislation that gave them control.