By Christopher Twarowski
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 23, 2008
Loudoun County's tax assessor caused a stir at the Board of Supervisors meeting Tuesday, saying that the panel that handles property owners' appeals of real estate assessments has failed to keep records explaining its decisions.
The comments by County Assessor Todd Kaufman, whose office values all real estate in the county, came as he presented his forecast for property assessments in the next fiscal year.
Kaufman said that the records kept by the Board of Equalization, an independent, court-appointed five-member body, show only whether the board granted or rejected an owner's appeal and by how much it adjusted Kaufman's assessment. He said the board's minutes do not provide any information on its approach or its reasoning in the cases, making it difficult for others to judge the quality of its work.
"The problem is that the Board of Equalization is making changes and they're not communicating to us why the changes are made," Kaufman told supervisors.
The lack of proper record-keeping also is inefficient, he said. Without information on why the board changed a particular assessment, his office is likely to issue an assessment the following year that triggers another appeal by the property owner and another adjustment by the board, he said.
"It's like a ping-pong ball being swatted back and forth across the table," Kaufman said. "And it's being done at the property owner's expense. They would have to appeal next year if they don't like the assessment."
He also said that the board does not allow representatives from his office to testify at appeals hearings. Even attending the hearings is difficult because of the times when the sessions are scheduled, he said.
The chairman of the Board of Equalization, Andrew D. Bogle, did not return a call seeking comment Tuesday, which is the Loudoun Extra's deadline.
Kaufman's comments generated a flurry of questions from supervisors at their meeting.
"There's nothing that we can do to hold the BOE accountable for its decisions?" asked Supervisor James Burton (I-Blue Ridge). "I find that hard to believe."
The supervisors voted to have the county attorney advise them of their legal options.
"I am particularly concerned about the unpredictability and uncertainty with regard to the BOE actions," said Supervisor Susan Klimek Buckley (D-Sugarland Run). "I would like to know every possible legal option we have to make a change, because it's quite concerning, and I think the consequences can be very significant in the future."
Supervisor Sally Kurtz (D-Catoctin) suggested that the county administrator assign someone to "bring a tape recorder to the [BOE] meeting, so we at least have an accurate record of what has transpired."
Kaufman's report projected a 6 percent decline in real property value in Loudoun for the fiscal year beginning next July and, after excluding tax-exempt property, a drop in taxable value of more than 7 percent.
The county derives about 65 percent of its revenue from real estate taxes.
Kaufman told the supervisors that 1,246 real estate owners appealed their assessment this fiscal year and that those cases involve property totaling almost $3 billion in value.
So far, the Board of Equalization has ruled on 375 appeals and changed the assessment in 173 cases, resulting in a drop of $75 million in assessed value, according to Kaufman.
Several of the cases yet to be decided involve owners of large parcels who are seeking a significant lowering of their assessment, he said. He estimated that by the time all the appeals have been decided, the resulting drop in assessed value for this fiscal year could total almost $450 million. He said that any adjustments in assessments have an impact on county revenue.
Kaufman said that some of the board's revisions appear legitimate and others do not. But the lack of record-keeping on the board's deliberations makes it difficult for him to reach a definitive conclusion, he said.