As everybody in Morgantown has entirely melted down about their property taxes by now, a brief moment of calm. During this moment of calm, we should realize the following: what has happened, although it sucks, is what ought to happen.
In this specific case, the issue is the valuation of property. What Monongalia County had been getting away with for years was collecting taxes based upon the price paid for a particular piece of property, irrespective of what that property was actually worth in today’s marketplace. What this meant was that a person who paid $150,000 for the same house his neighbor across the street paid $60,000 for 30 years ago was paying a much more substantial tax bill.
This tax bill had nothing to do with square footage or improvements or schools or anything else. It had only to do with when the home was purchased and what it was purchased for. Without being terribly clear about this, Monongalia County was soaking newer buyers to make up the revenue lost to older buyers.
With loud voices and much shouting, we can all swear ourselves hoarse about much it is going to suck to pay considerably more for the property that we own, but anybody wanting to make that argument must be willing to account for the fact that they were paying far less than their neighbors were for years and decades and generations. My guess is that nobody is going to be able to make that particular argument, because doing so requires defending a system that was plainly unfair.
People angry about what has transpired can still do on solid footing. It is just going to require a more subtle application of understanding.
In this particular case, it is wrong to say to the County Assessor’s office this, “You’re morons for raising my taxes!” That isn’t true. Leveling the system creates a scenario in which all participants pay a fair market share reflective of modern valuations, not 30-year-old prices paid.
It is, however, very right to say to the County Assessor’s office this, “What in the hell were you doing? Why weren’t you updating property valuations to create a level playing field that never would have forced this disastrously unpopular policy change onto an unknowing an unexpecting public? Do you have any of the common sense necessary to realize that sending people a letter telling them that their owed taxes might double, triple, quadruple, or worse might represent a PR disaster of the sort that you’re unprepared to deal with substantively?”
Even the guy responsible for this, a commenter here who I won’t publicly name, is attempting to offer some explanation to infuriated local residents outraged at the cost increase they’ll be facing. They’re facing that increase at least in part because of his activism. To his credit though, he isn’t willing to stomach much complaining:
Finally, if you were one of the property owners who benefited from the sales-chasing, underassessing practices of the assessor for the past 20 years, you should count yourself lucky that you didn’t have to pay the correct taxes for all these years. I got screwed for $500 / year for my residence since 2007 as it’s appraisal increased from $116K to $169K the year after I purchased the home.
Some of this is unfair. No citizen could have reasonably realized that they were cheating their neighbors across the street. I can only assume that everybody (wrongfully) believed that the County was capable of fairly taxing people who purchased property. That’s obviously an assumption based upon hope and not reality. The point is though that people who had been advantaged by this system need to realize as much and tailor their criticisms appropriately.
(In case anybody’s wondering, the obvious solution is this: a lower county-wide tax rate that represents a small increase for people who had been benefiting from the old system and a savings for more recent buyers who have been footing the bill for the county. Problem solved.)