Shifting the balance of power

Published 9:59 pm Friday, January 16, 2015

One of the most frustrating things for property owners who dispute their annual property assessments is the fact that they’re forced to argue a logical impossibility in order to win the overturning of incorrect assessments. The rules of logic dictate that one cannot categorically prove a negative. Yet that’s exactly what a property owner must attempt in an appeal of his annual assessment: He must prove that the city’s assessment is wrong, instead of the city having to prove that it’s right.

There’s more than the problem of weak inductive reasoning going on with this scheme. By placing the burden of proof on a taxpayer, rather than the municipality, Virginia’s assessment appeals process is unfairly skewed toward the government from the very beginning.

Furthermore, folks who appeal their assessments are not nearly as likely to have the tools, background and information they need to do so as a municipality’s assessor’s office is to have those resources ready at hand to prove the validity of the value it has placed on a property.

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The whole system too often puts the Board of Equalization in the position of making its decisions on assessment appeals based on incomplete information that may well have cost the appellant hundreds of dollars to compile with the help of outside experts hired for the process.

It’s as if a court said to a defendant in a criminal case: You’re charged with this crime, and there’s some evidence against you, but we’re not sharing it with you. And, by the way, now you must prove that you didn’t do it.

Good luck with that.

Senator John Cosgrove, who represents 10 Suffolk voting precincts in Virginia’s General Assembly, wants to switch things around, taking the power advantage from the government and giving it to the citizens, where it belongs in the first place. Under legislation Cosgrove has proposed for passage this year, the burden of proof in reassessment appeals hearings before a Board of Equalization would fall on the municipality, rather than the property owner.

Such a change would effectively mean that the government has to prove the logic behind its case for raising valuations — and, hence, taxes — on private properties. That’s a sensible way for government to operate and one that cleaves to the ideals upon which our republic was built.

Cosgrove’s bill deserves all the support it can get — both here at home and in Richmond.