Over the years, G.C. (Doc) Havens hasn't seen much reason to change the way he assesses taxes in Bland County, Va. Cows are still valued at $10 a head and household goods, a taxable property in Bland, are set at $150 a house. But Bland voters appreciate stability and have been reelecting Doc Havens, now 82, as commissioner of revenue since 1939.
Havens' unchanging ways are popular in Bland, a mountainous county of 6,000 people perched on the West Virginia border. But increasingly, Virginia's urban and suburban centers have found they've outgrown the need for separate commissioners of revenue and treasurers, two independently elected officers vested by the state constitution with the power to assess and collect local and state taxes.
In Arlington, the only Northern Virginia jurisdiction to maintain both offices, former county manager W. Vernon Ford lobbied several years ago for a merger of the treasurer and commissioner offices, complaining that the system caused countless delays, inefficiences and duplicated work for county government.
"There's no question about their integrity," said Ford of the two officeholders in 1977, "but they are still using quill pens in those offices."
Ford's complaint is echoed by professional government managers throughout the state. Four of the state's larger jurisdictions, Alexandria, Fairfax, Prince William and, as of yesterday, Richmond, have abolished the offices. But there are still 130 commissioners and 131 treasurers throughout the state who earn from $19,000 to $36,500 a year, depending on the population of their jurisdiction.
The system, critics say, begets fragmentation, particularly when treasurers or commissioners are personal or political rivals. "Let's put it this way," said one budget official, "They don't go out of their way to help us, partly because they don't see the whole picture the way we do."
The elected officials argue that the system provides taxpayers with someone directly accountable to them, someone other than a faceless bureaucrat to help with problems and address inequities of the tax system. "With an elected official, if you don't like them you can throw them out of office," said Calvin Marcum, president of the State Commissioners of Revenue Association.
But in practice, some students of Virginia government have found that voters traditionally pay little attention to either office. "I'm convinced that most voters in Virginia are unable to distinguish between the two offices . . . ," said J. Harvie Wilkinson III, author of a book on Virginia politics and a law professor at the University of Virginia. "In general, the attitude is, if it ain't broke, don't fix it. That's the Virginia way."
Still, instances of the problems posed by the independence of the officers abound. In Norfolk, for instance, the city had to wait for the old treasurer to retire before it could get his records put on a computer. In Arlington, officials have been pressing Treasurer Bennie Fletcher unsuccessfully for years to allow citizens to make overnight deposits at local banks on tax bills, a move, they say, that would increase the county's interest earnings. In Roanoke County, during the four years that the county operated without a treasurer, interest earnings increased substantially when the Finance Department took over the treasurer's function.
Even in Bland County, there are occasional complaints about the assessing methods of Doc Havens. "It might be better," said Gerald Groseclose, chairman of the county Board of Supervisors, if Havens raised assessments so the county could lower its tax rate on personal property, which is now considerably higher than in neighboring counties. But, said Groseclose, "Doc's independent. It's not up to us to direct him."
Abolishing the offices of commissioner of revenue or treasurer is no easy task in Virginia, as Ford found out in Arlington. Legislation to merge the offices in Arlington, introduced by Del. Warren Stambaugh (D-Arlington) and backed by the County Board, died in committee in the House of Delegates because, Stambaugh said, of opposition from Del. Mary Marshall (D-Arlington), whose campaign manager, Geraldine Whiting, was later elected commissioner of revenue.
The mechanism for abolishing "constitutional offices" was tackled in 1972 by a state constitutional convention. But the convention decided against taking the job out of the constitution and instead provided that they could be eliminated by local referendums and an act of the General Assembly. The combination, given the political clout of incumbent commissioners and treasurers, is formidable. Since few Virginia voters know what a commissioner or a treasurer does, few feel strongly about whether their offices should stay or go.
Commissioners and treasurers are actually only two of Virginia's five locally elected "constitutional officers" who for decades provided the backbone of Sen. Harry F. Byrd's political organization. Their power emanated from the one-party system that was the Byrd machine trademark. The constitutional officers were made loyal to the powers in Richmond by the state's authority to set their salaries.
Of the five offices, the most powerful were the commonwealth's attorney, the sheriff and the clerk of courts whose salaries are entirely funded by the state through the state Compensation Board. But commissioners and treasurers, whose salaries are split by state and local taxpayers, also accumulated considerable influence through their political connections, enough to fend off attempts to abolish or diminish their offices.
In the 10 years since the change in the constitution, only a few of Virginia's 136 counties and cities have moved to merge their commissioner and treaurer. Roanoke County, which abolished both its treasurer and commissioner by referendum in 1973, reversed itself four years later and restored the offices. This week, Richmond became the sixth to close its commissioner's office.
City officials say the closing of the commissioner's office will bring about instant savings, starting with the elimination of at least six jobs on the commissioner's staff of 32. Furthermore, they say it will improve coordination of the city's finances, giving City Hall exclusive control over the setting, assessing and collecting of its own taxes.
In Richmond, the Commissioner Julian Osborne's functions had already dwindled. Like most of Virginia's larger jurisdictions, the city long ago took away the commissioner's right to assess real estate taxes, the largest and most sensitive of any local tax. Two years ago, Osborne voluntarily relinquished his role in the processing of state income tax returns, handing that function over to the state. That left him with the job of assessing the city's tax on automobiles and other personal property, the state and city tax on business licenses and other minor levies.
Even Osborne, a 68-year-old former chairman of the city Democratic Party, acknowledges that his office had lost some of its meaning. Unlike other commissioners, he did not lobby for the right to keep processing state income tax returns, a fight that culminated in 1977 with a state law prohibiting the state tax commissioner from bypassing local commissioners in the collection of state income tax.
Virginia is not unique in having locally elected assessors and treasurers, but it is unique in that they also collect some state taxes. In 1972, a study of state government, done for then Gov. Linwood Holton, urged a change in the state collection system, noting that the dependence on local commissioners produced inefficiencies, duplication and a lack of uniformity. By making all state taxes directly payable to the state, Virginia could save $5 million a year, the study said.
But the "crying need" for reform which the study cited was never acted upon. State Tax Commissioner William Forst praises the current system for its ability to provide services to the taxpayer at the local level.
Still, an increasing number of commissioners--including those in Arlington, the City of Roanoke and other urban areas--have relinquished the right to process income tax returns, noting that the job is better done by the state.
Other developments have eroded the traditional power base of these offices. In Richmond, for instance, the local treasurer has been barred from the collection of local taxes since the 1940s. Now that city taxpayers pay their income tax directly to the state, he is charged only with collecting minor levies, such as the state's share of business license taxes.
"But," said Franklin Gayles, just elected to his second term at a $27,000-a-year salary, "the amount of business is not the point. It is the fact that the office is mandated by the Constitution."