Spring is tax decision time

Published 5:39 pm Tuesday, May 29, 2018

short rows header

Spring is the season for many things, including the setting of taxes by local government.

The array of services expected of local governments, be they county or city, has grown pretty dramatically during the past century. And as the variety of services expected of government has grown, so has the cost of providing those services.

Subscribe to our free email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

Counties once relied almost exclusively on real estate and personal property taxes. An elected commissioner of the revenue was charged with assessing real estate and keeping tabs on the amount and value of personal property, and an elected treasurer was charged with collecting taxes on both.

As the number and cost of services increased dramatically during the past half century, the need for vastly more tax dollars grew as well, and local government has had the thankless job of raising those funds. That has led to an array of new sources of revenue, including utility taxes, a “communications” tax, meals and lodging taxes, as well as increasingly expensive “fees” for everything from building permits to rezoning requests.

That diversification has the politically favorable cachet that “users,” i.e. persons asking for a rezoning or building a house, are paying for the county’s oversight of those activities. That justification can be overworked, of course. Everyone collectively benefits from the county’s building inspection program because of the safer construction that it ensures. And, everyone ostensibly benefits from a Planning Department that is managing growth. There is, therefore, a collective benefit to those programs and thus some general taxpayer liability for their existence.

A big benefit of diversification, particularly the fee-based revenue, is that Boards of Supervisors are not skewered by angry taxpayers for constantly dipping into real estate and personal property troughs, which remain the anchor revenue sources. Diversification spreads the misery of tax collection. It also allows local government to nibble on little bites of revenue increase from many sources rather than hacking away at a couple of sources.

Despite revenue diversification, the workhorses remain real estate and personal property. Virginia requires that real estate be kept at or near “fair market value,” and to achieve that, localities regularly reassess all real property periodically. Isle of Wight is in the midst of a reassessment right now in order to keep its values current.

Reassessments can be a blessing or curse for government. Right now, housing prices are climbing, and the property values that will be used to calculate taxes when this assessment is complete will almost certainly be higher than those currently in use, which were calculated in 2015.

Back when the housing bubble burst in 2008, values declined for several years and Board of Supervisors staff were recommending that the county not reassess property. Commissioner of the Revenue Gerald Gwaltney went to bat for taxpayers, saying the county should be consistent. If it were going to reassess to capture increases, it should do the same for declines.

Personal property taxes have always been somewhat controllable by taxpayers. While everyone needs transportation, people can drive older cars and keep their taxes lower. That decision has been less obvious since Governor Jim Gilmore pushed through a car tax abatement at the state level. It pays part of a private vehicle owner’s local tax and thus hides some of the cost of owning that car.

Residents who own boats or recreational vehicles and campers must also pay taxes on them. The county does use a lower rate for boats and a percentage of the total assessment for recreational vehicles as a way to keep the taxes on those items from becoming prohibitively expensive.

Local taxes are thus absolutely necessary and absolutely political. They are universally hated, but altogether inevitable.