Monday, June 18, 2007

Your Tax Dollars at Work

Readers will immediately notice that I have omitted names and many specifics from this post. Though the resulting text may read awkwardly, my intent is not to embarrass anyone, but rather to critique the competence (and in my opinion the arrogance) of the Unified Government, not of individuals. Nor I am interested in needlessly antagonizing county officials or the judiciary. However, property owners and taxpayers need to be aware of this situation. Of course, I suspect that members of the local legal community are well aware of this case (and the matter is public record in any event).

A particular property in our fair community was assessed at the fair market value of $190,236 in 2005. The next year, that assessment rose to a supposed fair market value of $361,583, an increase of 90%. Needless to say, the owner felt such a reassessment to be excessive. Upon discussion between the owner and the Tax Assessor’s office, the latter reduced the 2006 assessment to $298,406, an increase of a mere 57%. The owner found the revised assessment excessive as well and appealed to the Board of Equalization. That body heard the owner’s appeal, ruling in favor of the Board of Assessors. Still not satisfied, the owner appealed that decision to Superior Court.

Of the three cases originally scheduled for the week the owner’s appeal was to be tried, one settled and another was postponed, thus leaving the owner’s as the only case on the docket. Problems arose when the judge, owner, owner’s counsel, and 95 prospective jurors were in place, only to find the Board of Assessors represented by . . . an empty chair.

For whatever reason, the County Attorney’s office farmed the case out to “additional” counsel. The Entry of Appearance filed by that attorney indicated that he/she was serving as additional counsel to the County Attorney’s office. According to testimony given by the County Attorney’s office, it was under the impression that the “additional” counsel was, in fact, to be the sole counsel representing the Board.

Regardless, no one showed up in court to present the Board's case, even though the calendar indicating the trial date had been provided to the County Attorney’s office two months beforehand and through it to the “additional” counsel. Thus, when the trial date arrived, the Board’s counsel had neither prepared a case nor subpoenaed any witnesses. On the other hand, the owner’s counsel was ready to proceed, having prepared evidence and subpoenaed witnesses, some of whom were experts retained at the owner’s expense. Over the strong objections of the owner’s counsel, the judge granted a continuance.

A mere three days later, the judge issued a Consent Judgment agreed to by both sides, with the Board being represented by what appears to have been a second “additional” counsel, as again opposed to the County Attorney’s office. The Consent Judgment did three things:

1) Set the fair market value of the property at $190,236 for tax digest year 2006 and ordered a refund of overpayment, plus interest, for that year’s property taxes (i.e. the same assessment as for 2005)

2) Set the fair market value of the property at the same $190,236 for tax digest years 2007 and 2008 (assuming no improvements to the property)

3) Ordered the payment of $6300 for the fees and costs incurred by the owner to bring the case to trial

Notably, this amount does not include the $2375 paid to the 95 prospective jurors for their service. Neither does it include the refund and interest on 2006 property taxes mentioned above, nor does it include the potential property tax revenue lost to the county resulting from a freeze of the assessments for 2007 and 2008, which doubtlessly amount to a far greater sum.

From what I can gather, the owner’s counsel was well prepared to argue the appeal on its merits. On one hand, those preparations may not have mattered; since the county bungled the case so badly that it may have immediately agreed to the Consent Judgment without any evidence being presented in open court so as to be done with the matter. On the other hand, the county may have realized that is was destined to lose the case based on the strength of the owner’s evidence and simply thrown in the towel. Either way, the county’s taxpayers, save one, are on the financial hook for this debacle.

And yes, I have copies of the relevant documents (Civil Jury Trial Calendar, defendant counsel’s Entry of Appearance, Transcript of Proceedings, and Consent Judgment).

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Anonymous said...

It happened just that way. I know the attorney for the property owner. This was big news in the Courthouse.

And the property deserved an increase - maybe not 90% or even 60%. But SOME increase. the property owner was pissed and had money to fight. The jury would NOT have given him the result he got from the Consent Judgement, IMHO.

Bill Berryman is fucking useless. If he worked at a private firm he would've been fired for this shit. The LEAST he can do is monitor the ongoing cases for the outside counsel(s) that are hired to do the actual work.

AND he makes over $100,000 a year.

- anonymous (for obvious reasons) attorney

james said...

I agree that the Consent Judgment was generous to the property owner (in the extreme). I interpret that generosity as a function of how badly the county screwed up.

FWIW, the assessment assigned to the property in question for 2007 was $379,163, a 27% increase over the revised assessment of $298,406 for 2006. This case is a prime example of how property taxes can skyrocket, even in the absence of a millage rate increase.

Winfield J. Abbe said...

James: I believe you are talking about the same case discussed in

but I am not sure. So I will not mention the name here.

Is not government run by people with reputations, homes, and, hopefully, consciences? Why protect them? How do we know "anonymous attorney" is really an attorney and where he or she is? If you want to see what people do when they are not identified just look at most crimes and writings on public bathroom walls.

james said...


Yes, we are talking about the same case.

Your point about not revealing details is well taken. However, on the blog I am going to play some things close to the vest for a couple of reasons. One is that I fear too much hyperbole and/or getting into personalities would detract from the arguments I am trying to make. The odds in this community are stacked against the points I try to make under the best of circumstances, so why make it worse? The other is that I want people to feel confident that I can guard my sources, thereby encouraging them to tell me things and give me leads that I can follow up.

FWIW, I have read your comments over the years and agree with many of the points you raise concerning the conduct of the Unified Government. Also, I respect anyone who actually makes comments over his/her own name. I have been active in the blogosphere for about a year and have signed every posting or comment I have made. I understand there may be (rare) situations where prudence may encourage the use of pseudonyms or anonymity, but signed comments carry more weight with me. Of course, not all pseudonyms are equal; the identity of some bloggers who use them are well known.

Polusplagchnos said...

Barring improvements to the property, what could justify such an assessment as the original one proposed?

I'm not asking so much what reasonably and prudently justifies that assessment, but rather what realistically and baldly justifies it. IOWs, what would be the reasons, without consideration for value judgments about the reasons?

Anonymous said...

No, the property in question did not deserve an "increase." Neither did your property or mine or any other for that matter. Property tax, especially based upon near random, guesswork "values", is the most outrageous criminal act perpetrated by the govt. on the people. Um, if I don't want to sell my property, the value is $0!

I have friends from Eastern and Western Europe who visit regularly...they always laugh when they hear stories like this. They laugh at the stupid Americans who think they are free or think that they have any opportunity to live the "American dream" of home ownership, because, as this case clearly illustrates - no one "owns" and property - you merely rent it from the govt. Don't believe me? Don't pay your "property tax rent" and see what happens.

Anonymous said...

If his property is truly worth $190k, I would gladly pay him cash on the spot for it - heck, I will even given him $200k for the building.

But he knows darn well that it is not worth that - it is much, much more.

He is playing the game like everyone else with property in this town. They all want to have their property worth a ton on the private market, but pay taxes like it is a slum.

These same people are pains in the rear-end when you try to talk to them about selling it for a public use (remember the East Athens Park?). All of the sudden they are sitting on Park Avenue property.

The whole system sucks. What I don't understand is why the Consent Judgement not discussed and one tried to reach before any of this mess started?