Of revolts and tone-deaf responses
The leaders of the Augusta County citizens group leading the fight against the 2009 county property reassessment took to calling their effort a tax revolt, which I thought was a bit overwrought even as I thought their general point, that the reassessment was basically botched, was right on. Overwrought doesn’t begin to describe the finger-wagging lecture of Board of Supervisors Chairman David Beyeler to the would-be revolutionaries once they had been vanquished.
“I will vote against that motion. I have taken an oath of office to uphold the laws of this state of Virginia, and I will look every one of you as close as I can in the eye, and I’m going to ask you, Do you believe in obeying the laws of this state, whether you agree with them or not?” Beyeler said as he wagged his right index finger at the overflow crowd at the Augusta County Government Center Wednesday night.
When his question was met with shouts of “No!” from across the meeting room, Beyeler sneered from his perch on the dais. “That is what’s wrong with this country. We only agree to obey the laws if it suits our fancy,” Beyeler said.
Revolt, maybe that was too much. But what Beyeler had to say was revolting, especially considering the facts at hand. It’s apparently not enough that home sales are up about half the increase in county property assessments from 2005 to 2009, according to data from the Greater Augusta Association of Realtors. That could have been corrected, as Pastures Supervisor Tracy Pyles has been trying to have fellow Board members recognize dating back to the fall.
“I understand that what I’ve been trying to do is not comfortable, and that it is outside what you may think we ought to do. But from the very beginning, starting last October, I tried to lay everything out, because it seemed to me that it should have been obvious to everybody that the amount the assessment was going up was not accurate. We could see it then in the raw numbers, but we weren’t allowed to look at the detail,” said Pyles, who until Wednesday night was the lone wolf on the Board fighting the reassessment fight.
He gained a last-minute ally in Beverley Manor Supervisor Jeremy Shifflett, whom I know was the subject of lobbying efforts by leaders of the citizens group leading the reassessment fight in the last couple of weeks. Shifflett seconded Pyles’ motion to have the county scuttle the reassessment even as he noted the same dilemma that Beyeler would later in the meeting regarding the State Code.
“I did take an oath to uphold the laws of the Commonwealth of Virginia as an elected official, but I also represent the people,” Shifflett said. “The dilemma has arose, so do I follow the law of the Commonwealth, as I’ve done all my life, and vote to uphold the status quo with regard to the reassessment, or do I go with that gut feeling and go with what seems to be the consensus of the people who have signed petitions and spoke at this and past meetings and wrote letters that they do not agree with this reassessment and just want it to be fair and reflect the current market?
“There’s no doubt in my mind that this board will lower the tax rate, and I believe that every supervisor is on record saying that. You simply cannot get tax revenue from folks who don’t have the means to pay it,” Shifflett said. “But with the discrepancies mentioned and the outrage heard, that allows me to make the following decision, that something must be done on behalf of the people regarding this reassessment.”
A steady stream of county residents brought that point home in advance of the tense discussion between members of the Board of Supervisors.
“Here in Augusta County, the median estimated home price declined 11.6 percent in 2008, and yet the assessments went up as much as 40 percent. The average is around 27. You board members tell us that you did your best to hold down our taxes this year, but there’s no guarantee for future years. And with the reassessment being for four years, we can’t go on blind faith,” said Mount Sidney resident Jim Noel, who is considering entering the race for the Democratic Party nomination to run for the 25th District House of Delegates seat.
“Now is the time to fix it, by making the assessments annual or biannual, and investing in the software to do the assessments in-house,” Noel said.
“The thing that bothers me now is not the reassessment. We all know, except for six people, what the problem with the reassessment is. The thing that bothers me is that since January, when this thing started unfolding, is that we have had six members of the Board of Supervisors that are acting like paid lobbyists. They are doing everything they can to stonewall the democratic procedure,” Greenville resident Kenneth Cunningham said.
“Sometimes when I look around at what you’re doing, and I’m not a chimney, so don’t try to blow smoke, but some of the articles that you’re publishing and some of the self-serving propaganda you’re putting out, it makes me think of what you hear about Russia or Communist China, where the government just pushes whatever they want down on the people without any say of the people,” Cunningham said.
“I don’t have a clue of when the next election is. I don’t have a clue of who is running for the election next time. But I know that I’ll find out. And if one person runs against an incumbent, I’ll vote for that person, even if they’re Forrest Gump. And if two people are running against that person, then I’ll try to vote twice,” Cunningham said.
Pyles had to know that his campaign was going to end like this. “The only battle that you can’t win is the one you don’t fight. We have to fight this,” Pyles said before his motion failed by a 5-2 vote. “The people want us to fight it. They’re looking to us to do something. No court decision is decided by an attorney general’s opinion. It’s decided by the courts. We know our penalty is, if we don’t reassess, it’s minimal, it’s nothing. We need to marshal the resources of this county to stop this instead of using the resources of this county to ensure that it goes forward.”
I’m more than a bit dismayed at the words that Riverheads Supervisor Nancy Sorrells, whom I consider a friend, decided to employ to denigrate those who have been critical of the Board of Supervisors majority on this issue in recent weeks.
“I do worry that many of you have been lured by false promises and misinformation and have not taken part in the process to make sure that you’re fairly taxed,” Sorrells said, citing the 20 percent decrease in the number of requests for hearings with the Board of Assessors from the most recent reassessment in 2005.
“If you were distracted by the pied piper, I apologize. I apologize for the harm that you have suffered, but it is not too late to bring your concerns to the county,” Sorrells said, not unironically, considering the overflow crowd at the Government Center that took the time to do just that Wednesday night.
My guess is that folks will be taking their concerns on this to the county in some shape or form. The only question to me is will that shape or form include the next Board of Supervisors elections in 2011.
If I had to bet, I’d say yes to that right now. Because I’m thinking this revolt is going to have some serious legs.
– Story by Chris Graham