Property reappraisal can be changed
Johnny Mack Morrow
The motto inscribed on the seal of the Alabama House of Representatives is Vox Populi, Latin for Voice of the People. The House makes sure that the people's voice is heard, especially on important issues like taxes.
According to national studies, Alabama has the lowest taxes in the nation. It is what we want, as elections on state tax referendums over the past decade clearly show. Moreover, having the lowest taxes means that we take extra care with every tax dollar, making sure that it is used in the manner for which it was intended.
For example, every dollar collected in state income taxes and state sales taxes is earmarked for education, funding our elementary and high school classrooms and the state's great universities and community colleges. It is good to know that all gasoline taxes go to roads and bridges, where it should go. When folks know tax money is going to the right places, it improves confidence in our tax system and in government.
However, one area of taxation has erupted in controversy over the past three years, and it is no coincidence that the tax policy was made without any input of the people. It was the change in property reappraisals.
For decades, Alabama had a quadrennial property reappraisal system. The value of homes and business buildings was assessed and adjusted for tax purposes every four years. Though there was a pretty big jump in property assessment on that fourth year, people understood and liked the system, keeping their property taxes steady from year to year.
In March 2003, Gov. Riley made the decision to change the system to annual appraisals. By his order, he directed the Alabama Department of Revenue to change the system in every county. Since then, county after county has had to change to annual appraisals, often with a host of problems because of overwhelmed revenue offices and courthouses whose work quadrupled at the stroke of a pen.
Riley said at the time of the change that annual appraisals are required by state law, and he was just following the law. Yet we had been on the four-year system for decades without any problems or lawsuits in the courts.
It was his decision, and he made it. If he wanted to change it back, he could. It doesn't take a special session, it just takes Gov. Riley admitting he was wrong.
Now there is growing outcry about the new appraisal system.
In Baldwin County, the mostly affluent area down on our Gulf Coast, there have been more than 6,000 appeals to new appraisals this year alone. Some property owners saw their assessed value double, triple or even more, with tax increases of thousands of dollars. People are demanding that the local revenue commissioner resign, and there may be problems with his work. But who can blame only one man implementing a policy that wasn't thought out or voted on by the people?
Now the governor is starting to see some political problems because of his policy. There was a recent special election in Baldwin County for a state senate seat, and the candidate he personally endorsed lost by a huge margin in the primary. Voters knew it is ultimately the governor's fault for the annual reappraisal mess in that county, and his candidate paid the price.
Problems in courthouses all over the state are common because of the new system. So, is the governor planning to reverse the policy with another stroke of his pen? The answer seems to be no.
It has taken three years for the governor's plan to be implemented across the state, and in that time many of our county governments, including the school systems that receive a portion of local property taxes, have come to plan on the revenue generated by annual appraisals. There will have to be some planning on the governor's part if he decides to change his policy back to the quadrennial system, more planning than it seems he did in the first place.
I imagine Gov. Riley is starting to hear the people loud and clear on this issue. The question is will he listen.
Johnny Mack Morrow is a state representative for Franklin County.