By Matt Barnsley
As property owners and American taxpayers, we rely upon a system of government that is supposed to ensure fairness and equality. This is especially true when it comes to assessing property values. You should be paying roughly the same amount as your neighbor, factoring in parcel size, of course. Meaning that once you broke the numbers down into something concrete, like square footage assessed, the dollar amounts per should be roughly the same.
But how can you be sure that’s the case? You mostly just rely on the assessors’ word. It’s not like you chat up your neighbors regarding their tax bill. Personally, I don’t think it’s ever come up. All this information is public record, of course. A quick search online could tell you what your neighbor pays, what your parents pay, what your brother-in-law pays. But that’s a slow and inefficient way to do it. And honestly, most people don’t care enough to go through all that math.
This is where cutting-edge technology comes in. Using software, you can input a few parameters (size, location, etc.) and get an almost instantaneous look at how your property compares to others. Many businesses use this software to ensure that their properties aren’t being overtaxed. And in a lot of cases, it turns out the assessors’ rates were inconsistent. It happens. Assessing isn’t an exact science and a lot goes into it. That’s why there’s an appeals process.
Now imagine that after you’ve compiled all this data it turns out there’s something of a pattern involving the overassessments. At first, you don’t believe it. But in case after case, you can clearly see that specific groups of people are being charged 2x, 3x, sometimes 10x what others pay. What do they all have in common? It could be anything. For the purposes of our experiment let’s say they all belong to the same church. Interesting.
So, you have all this data showing that everyone who goes to First Lutheran Church is paying a much higher rate than anyone else. Surely, it must be an accident. You appeal to have your rate reassessed. During the appeal, you ask for the county and state agencies involved in assessing to turn over communications relating to your case. Unfortunately, the county comes back to you and says “oops, sorry, we deleted all those emails” in direct defiance of state law. In fact, one such email that was destroyed (and fortunately recovered from a different agency who did not destroy it) specifically mentions First Lutheran Church, BY NAME, and implies that there should be a specific way of taxing those people.
Does this seem remotely fair? Or does this sound like discrimination?
It’s sad to say but this exact scenario is playing out right now in a Minnesota courtroom. Anoka County officials admitted to deliberately destroying evidence that was critical to a pending lawsuit involving the overassessment of specific properties. The only real difference between the two was that the discrimination was towards a business and not a homeowner. It’s unfortunate, it’s unethical, and perhaps worse, it’s against the law.