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A Tax Recipe for Failure in District of Columbia

"Washington is unique in its reliance on property taxes, and in particular commercial property taxes, for a disproportionate share of its revenue. This is due in large part to factors outside of the council's control, such as the large amount of federally owned, tax-exempt property in the district, and to Congress' decision to prevent the district from taxing income earned in the district by non-residents..."

By Scott B. Cryder, Esq., as published by National Real Estate Investor - online, April 9th, 2013

Most property owners in the District of Columbia would welcome a plan to increase the accuracy of tax assessments by providing assessors with the most up-to-date information available. But if that plan also reduced the time D.C. assessors have to conduct their assessments to two months, rather than the current six months, many of those same taxpayers might reconsider. And if this plan would also reduce the time for assessors to handle initial administrative appeals, which has been an efficient mechanism to pare down the number of formal appeals, to six weeks instead of the current four-month window, most reasonable people would likely balk at the entire notion.

The truth is, legislation mandating these exact changes is pending before the Council of the District Columbia. And if statements from key councilmembers and District officials are any indication, this legislation has a good chance of becoming law in the next few months. How did we get here?

First, understand that Washington is unique in its reliance on property taxes, and in particular commercial property taxes, for a disproportionate share of its revenue. This is due in large part to factors outside of the council's control, such as the large amount of federally owned, tax-exempt property in the district, and to Congress' decision to prevent the district from taxing income earned in the district by non-residents.

Nonetheless, this heavy reliance on property taxes has created the public perception that Washington's assessment division is a revenue-generating department. Misplaced as this view may be—and it is misplaced—it has resulted in the assessment division being subject to frequent charges of "giving away" taxpayer dollars.

The most recent iteration of this line of criticism came to a head last year when the Washington Post published a series of articles suggesting that the Real Property Assessment Division was improperly settling commercial assessment appeals. To pile on, the Washington D.C. Office of the Inspector General issued a report shortly thereafter roundly criticizing many key practices and policies in the Assessment Division.

Although many of the criticisms levied at the Assessment Division were unmerited, the top staff of the Assessment Division determined that action needed to be taken. Naturally, one would anticipate that a working committee of stakeholders was convened and suggestions of the assessors sought, since they would be implementing any changes.

One would also expect such a committee, or someone in authority, to thoroughly review implications of any proposed changes. Unfortunately, though not unsurprisingly, none of this occurred. Instead of engaging in an "all—of-the-above" type of conversation, district officials quickly rolled out a wholesale overhaul of the assessment process without anything resembling the thorough vetting needed.

Good intentioned as those public servants proposing these changes may be, most professionals involved in the assessment and appeal process (including every assessor the author has queried) agree that the recommended changes will have a negative impact on the quality of assessments, and will ultimately increase both the number of appeals and the average time required to resolve an appeal. While this is surely not the outcome that district officials desire, it will likely be the one they achieve.

Cryder600 Scott B. Cryder is an associate in the law firm of Wilkes Artis Chartered, the District of Columbia member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.

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