My Experience With The Assessor’s Board Of Equalization

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

According to the Hamilton County Website, the County Board of Equalization “hears appeals from citizens who do not agree with their property assessments.” That sounds good. I sure don’t agree with mine. It “exists to give every property owner a chance to be heard. The goal is not to be an appraiser, but to decide values based on consistency, equity, and evidence. When properties are assessed unfairly, others pay the difference. Decisions should be heard based solely on evidence, not feelings.” 

That seems plain enough, so I made the reasonable mistake of thinking the five-member Board of Equalization is an independent group, a legitimate buffer between innocent citizens and the Assessor, set up to determine if an assessment is unreasonable and then to correct the situation. Since I definitely believe my new appraisal, at more than 26 percent above the previous value, is grossly incorrect and totally insupportable, I proceeded. Actually, I proceeded to make several more mistakes. 

“Appeal forms must be obtained from the Hamilton County Assessor of Property’s Office.” That’s plain enough, no mention of getting forms by mail or downloading them from the web, so I drove 19 miles across the county to the Assessor’s office to pick up an appeal form, and drove 19 miles back home. Days later, after completing the form accurately and in detail, I again drove 19 miles across the county and handed the form – with five copies of my detailed arguments – to the Assessor’s receptionist; I didn’t want documents that important to get lost in the mail. Then I waited until someone else from the Assessor’s office called to set my appointment with the Board of Equalization. I accepted the time slot offered, and waited some more. Considering the large amount of my limited income that’s at stake here, the stress was becoming difficult to handle. (But, unlike me, you already see the pattern here, the pattern that I failed to recognize: Everything about the Board of Equalization begins and ends at the Assessor’s office–which doesn’t exactly indicate it’s an independent agency, huh?) 

On the specified day I again drove 19 miles across the county and waited until the specified time. Since the Board consists of five members, three appointed by Hamilton County and two appointed by the city of Chattanooga, I assumed I’d be facing five citizens, my peers. That was another mistake; there were at least six or seven people in the room when I entered, plus the assessor who ushered me in, plus another assessor who was called in to present his side of the matter. Under the stress of the occasion, I did not catch all of their names; that’s just one more mistake. 

I should have come to my senses right then, given up, and left immediately, because one of the men introduced himself by saying, “We haven’t had any lunch.” (It was 2:30 p.m.) I replied that I hadn’t had any lunch, either; my nerves wouldn’t allow it. Then he said, “We’re tired of dealing with people who wait until the last minute.” Well, I took the earliest appointment I was offered, and came to the meeting at the time I was told. That hardly seems dilatory, does it? In my innocence and inexperience, I did not understand that the Board had already decided they would have me for lunch, completely at my expense. 

What was my complaint? Well, they already knew all about that; they all had copies of all of my arguments, all of the pertinent numbers and details about my whole neighborhood, all taken directly from county records online. And they were surrounded by assessors, who seem to have all the answers for everything. But I tried to explain: My complaint is that my new +26 percent appraisal is unreasonably and irresponsibly high. What was my evidence, my arguments? My evidence and arguments were all written down and in their hands–they were paging through them–but I tried to describe the situation anyway: Several other homes within a quarter mile of my home are of the same size and generally better construction and appearance – yet are appraised much lower than mine. The highest valued of them is still only 80 percent of my appraisal, on a direct building-to-building comparison. 

Then there is the property, the land value. I have four acres, a long and narrow piece that is mostly hilly, inaccessible, unusable, covered with rocks and trees, brambles and poison ivy. But it’s appraised at more than $14,000 per acre, while other nearby properties of the same character are valued at less than half that much. Properties that touch mine directly are valued at $4,200 to $7,600 per acre, but the assessors don’t blush a bit about that inconsistency.  

The Assessor and the Board claim to be governed by and obsessed with ‘fair market value,’ while managing to avoid using actual sales figures whenever it pleases them. They make up values when none are available. Even during that meeting as they studied nearby properties and their recent low sale prices, the Board members commented, ‘That can’t be right.’ ‘That was a distress or foreclosure sale.’ ‘That was a family sale.’ It’s evident that actual sales figures aren’t a factor here at all. 

It was repeatedly demanded of me to place a fair market value on my own property, which I contend I cannot do, other than to repeat the price I paid for it. My home isn’t for sale, and no one is asking to buy it. That question is akin to, “What’s your wife worth to you?” “What’s your family dog worth to you?” Those are nonsense questions, meant only to confound the innocent and obscure the issue. The chairman of the Board asked me bluntly, “Could you replace your home for the price you paid for it?” 

Of course I could do that, because I would build it exactly the same way the original owner / builder did the job. He did as much of the work as possible himself when he had the time, he used economical materials purchased as he could afford them, family and friends helped him when they could, and ... well, then he died and left the building somewhat unfinished. The man died young, and that was that. Eventually I bought it from his widow, at a price she (an honestly willing seller) and I (an honestly willing buyer) independently agreed upon without the interference of realtors or any other outside influences. That, I claim, represents a true and fair market value. Both of us named the same dollar amount within the same minute. Even then it might have been excessive, considering recent appraisals of other similar homes nearby. But regardless of all that, the county has valued my home at least 25 percent higher than the next similar house. 

My home has a large, open front yard and is easily visible to anyone driving past. The assessor working with the Board produced a clear photo of my home and displayed it for them all to see. I argued that other comparable homes within easy walking distance are in fact better built, more attractive, and yet valued way lower than my own. But when I asked him to show a photo of the nearest and most comparable home, all he seemed able to find was a view of its roof peak, with all the rest of the house obscured by a dirt bank. That was a really dirty trick, a cheap shot; it takes special talent and skill to obtain such a useless photo. That whole house is easily visible from the road and also on the Google satellite photos. One honest firsthand look would convince anyone that it is at least comparable to my home, but county records show it is valued at only 80 percent of my home. 

The assessor didn’t want to talk about that or any other comparable homes near mine. He’d already seen my arguments, the results of my research in his own public files, and knew he couldn’t beat that honest evidence. He only wanted to talk about land values near mine–right beside mine. He stated that my land had been undervalued for some time, and he had merely brought it into line – he had ‘equalized’ it – with my immediate neighbors. I explained that when I bought the place in 2010, I paid less than the exaggerated 2009 reappraisal value and the realtor’s proposed price. Then I had talked to Mr. Gary Dawn in the Assessor’s office, arguing that the price I paid was truly the fair market value. And Assessor Bill Bennett eventually sent me a new appraisal in line with the price I had paid.  

Now I realize that, instead of doing any kind of a pro-rated reappraisal of the whole property, instead of adjusting both the land value and the building value equitably to be in line with the fair market value (actual selling price), that quick-and-dirty 2011 adjustment consisted only of reducing the land value and ignored the building. And since my two next door neighbors have identical plots that are also valued inordinately high, it was an easy matter for any new assessor to come back later and jack up my land value exorbitantly – to ‘equalize’ it with my neighbors’ land. Equal, yes; fair, no way. But cheating three adjacent landowners is no big deal, I guess, as long as they are all cheated equally. 

Unwilling to accept the ‘comps’ or truly comparable properties that I showed him near my home, the assessor instead went more than two miles from my home to a totally different neighborhood to find a new house that he claimed is comparable to mine, then he pointed out another one even farther from mine, of twice the value. It’s obvious that ‘comparable’ means only what the man says it means, and ‘fair market value’ means only what he wants it to mean. 

Ten days after that farce of a meeting, I received the Board’s final decision and learned that all of my time, research, travel expense, and personal stress had been completely wasted. The Assessor’s Board of Equalization took not one cent off my new appraisal; they paid no attention to the valid arguments and honest examples that I offered, and the whole process did me no good at all. They sure showed me. Oh, yes, they had a late lunch that day – and I was it. I have no choice but to pay taxes on a 26 percent higher assessment.  

But now, as I read again the county website information, I see that it doesn’t make any real promises. It does indeed say only that the Board of Equalization “hears appeals ... .” No mention of anyone actually paying attention to and honestly considering the merits of those appeals; all they’re obliged to do is to sit and listen. “[The Board] exists to give every property owner a chance to be heard.” So I got to speak my little piece, and at least they didn’t outright laugh at me while I was in the room. The Board did fail, though, “to decide values based on consistency, equity, and evidence.” The only evidence accepted was that offered by the assessor, the only consistency was in his refusal to face my reasonable evidence and argument fairly and squarely, and there was no equity displayed whatsoever. 

And I obviously failed to grasp the significance of this sentence: “When properties are assessed unfairly, others pay the difference.” That clearly indicates they’re only interested in errors on the low side; errors on the high side, as in my case, harm only that one property owner and are entirely to the county’s benefit. 

The Hamilton County Assessor’s Board of Equalization is not the court of last resort, though. There is a Tennessee State Board of Equalization that will hear still-dissatisfied citizens. All that’s required is to file another appeal within the time limit, pay the applicable fee, travel 130-some miles to Nashville on demand and ... and, I suspect, waste yet more time and money and energy in another futile attempt to get other, stranger, more remote government employees to treat me fairly, with equity and justice as they so proudly proclaim. 

But I give up; I don’t have the physical or nervous energy or the money to try that again. I won’t spend the time, money, and effort to go to Nashville and try to present my case against an insupportable appraisal. It seems the Assessor has won, like as if there was ever any real doubt about that. 

Live and learn, Larry! But at 74 years old, how much more time do I have left to learn? Right now, I’ve got to find some way to earn enough to pay this year’s unjustly large tax bills ... and we can safely assume that next year’s bills will be even larger. When the actual 2017 tax bills are mailed this fall, I suspect plenty of others are finally going to wake up to the real effects of the recent reappraisal. But it will be too late. 

It may be legal, but it’s not right. 

Larry Cloud

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