I feel like I could find a Madison County tax story from 2004 and run it again in 2009 with just a few name changes.
The core issues remain. The tax digests are perennially late. There are questions about the uniformity of values. There are real animosities that can’t be disguised through forced smiles.
Those who serve on the local assessor board take on a thankless position, one that requires a lot of training and a lot of time considering complex tax issues that will only anger people in the end. They surely have a tough role in our community. And some hurl invective their way seemingly blind to the challenges assessors face.
But citizens also have some legitimate reasons to be angry with them these days, given the chronic nature of Madison County’s appraisal ailments.
There is a real sense that the county can’t get its act together on tax appraisals. And I don’t feel this is a media-manufactured problem. I’m not itching to pull the trigger on ugly tax headlines. No, the decade of Madison County tax appraisal woes has wearied taxpayers and government officials — reporters, too. I write this stuff and feel as if I’m being punished at a blackboard, repeating the same things again and again.
After watching the tax sagas from the sidelines for a number of years, I believe it’s high time for Madison County to shell out extra cash for a highly qualified chief appraiser. I believe the commissioners should pull money from contingencies this year to hire a proven appraiser, even if that figure raises eyebrows and draws some inevitable ugliness. If it takes $85,000 to get the right person — comparable to the salary of a school principal — then that’s awfully painful for the county government, but what is the hidden cost from a decade of delayed digests, not just for the county government but for our school system and our municipal governments? The cumulative losses due to the delays should be factored in to any salary discussion, too. Likewise, what is the appropriate price tag for ensuring taxing fairness for property owners? Ultimately, should our leaders value another $20,000 or $30,000 in the county’s general fund more than improved uniformity between similar properties?
Some on the assessor board may be angry that their recommendation for chief appraiser was rejected. But consider that hiring someone from within the appraisal office right now would be akin to the Georgia basketball program naming one of Dennis Felton’s assistants as its new head coach. Sure, you may have someone within the system who is young, bright and has plenty of promise, but after years of a troubled product, a program will naturally look for established leadership from outside. This is reasonable and shouldn’t be a spark for further fighting.
The hunt for a chief appraiser will soon stretch into the third month of 2009. We know that the county hopes to conduct a total revaluation of county properties soon. We know, too, that getting a digest out on time also becomes more difficult with the appraiser’s position unfilled.
It’s time for both the BOC and the BOA to act decisively and to extinguish whatever flames of animosity block the doorway to greater effectiveness.
The chief appraiser’s position is the axis upon which all local government spins. That person not only oversees the value of all properties in the county, but also sets in motion the revenue process for all tax-levying groups in the county — the BOC, school board, industrial authority and cities. Meanwhile, the board of assessors, the board of equalization and occasionally the Superior Court all serve as appeal stops for the chief appraiser’s actions. When you tie up more and more time with appeals, you also bear a cost. These hard facts should outweigh any personal grievance by members of either board.
There will never be a smooth, tension-free flow of cash from property owners to the government. Property taxes are a necessary evil in keeping local governments afloat. Yes, most folks forget the “necessary” and focus on the “evil.”
But the quiet “good” is there, too, when government works to ensure that its methods are sound and fair.
Hiring an established chief appraiser will be a step toward those goals.
Zach Mitcham is editor of The Madison County Journal.