Notes on a Property Assessment
Arrival Time for meeting: 3:15 p.m.
Departure from office: 5:30 p.m.
Actual Meeting Time: 15 minutes
The county I live in is in the process of reassessing everyone's property values. I received my notice in the mail a few months ago, showing an increase in property taxes of about 300 percent. The notice gave a number to call for an "informal hearing" where I was encouraged to come in and appeal the new assessment. I called. Three hundred percent is quite a hike in price, and it seemed to me that they got the lot size wrong.
My meeting was yesterday afternoon at 3:15 p.m. No big deal, I thought. I'll go into an airless office with blue, low-grade carpeting, meet with a dry-humored man, and explain the mistakes they've made. A few years ago I had the house appraised, so I took along that packet of photos and information. I figured Helen and I would be out of there in time for us to make it to her hair appointment.
The building and location? Think quonset hut set up on a tract of land behind an industrial park. No cheer for miles. Weeds aplenty. A parking lot filled with cars, the sidewalk outside peppered with people carrying binders thick with proof that their houses aren't worth what the county thinks they are.
When we walked through the doors we were greeted by a security guard who asked us to open our purses. "Just checking for handguns and knives." Once cleared, we entered the waiting area and reception. To the right were three or four rows of chairs, all filled. In the corner to the right, a small television set sat on a chair, blinking an afternoon game show. The receptionist was a boy in his teens, who told me that their system was down today, and that they were backed up and behind schedule by about an hour. I laughed. He said we could go out and come back, or wait, or reschedule. From the looks of all the waiting people, I opted to wait since rescheduling would be more of a pain. I asked the boy if there was a place to get a soda or snack. He replied that he didn't know of anything nearby, and admitted to being an out-of-towner. Good to know the local government is hiring kids from 40 miles away - still in our county, but so far that he must pay $20 in gas to get to work everyday.
Helen called her salon to reschedule her hair. We found our place on the concrete outside, and leaned against the building in the blaring sun. First we ran lines for the play I'm in, and when that became dull, we listened to the other people making fast friends of one another, inextricably connected by the government morass they found themselves in for the afternoon. A man with a bluetooth headset stopped by us and asked "Informal?" "Pardon?" I asked. "Oh, informal or formal hearing for you today?" The clarification helped, but I wondered why he cared. "Informal." "This is the third time I've been here with a friend. Formal's the way to go, believe me. You won't get anywhere today. You'll need a lawyer."
A lawyer? That's when I really started paying attention to what or who people had with them. Large, overstuffed binders with tabs and stuffed pockets. Photos. Rolled up maps of land. Crikey. I had one folder, my old appraisal, and the letter they sent me. Still, I felt like I could explain the mistakes they made. I have a small lot, not a huge one.
When Helen and I stood up to stretch, we realized that our backs were covered with a fine chalky silt from the side of the building. It wouldn't brush off.
Every now and again a woman receptionist would pop out of the office to bleakly call out a name, and sometimes she'd reel a person in, sometimes not. Our name was never called. We were waiting about an hour when we got thirsty and decided to try out the soda machine inside.
The machine was located near the waiting area. Right next to the chairs. Enough room to walk between the last row of people if you scooted sideways. So scoot we did, with our dollar and fifty cents scraped up from the bottoms of our combined purses. Who knows how much a government soda could cost?
$1.3o. The most arbitrary amount for a soda we'd ever seen. I apologized for whacking the poor guy seated next to the machine with my purse when I turned to put my $1.50 into the slots. The soda thunked out, and a thin dime came out as change. Let's to the math, shall we? Oh yes, lets:
1.50 - 1.30 = .20
Even the soda machine gets the math wrong.
We took our soda outside and waited. The security guard came out and picked up a couple of signs for parking as if they were closing up for the evening. When someone sitting on the curb inquired, he said "Just my department is leaving. You'll be here awhile still." Another 45 minutes or so passed before we talked to a man who asked when our appointment was. He said we ought to go in and check - they were calling names for people who had similar appointment times.
Inside, the receptionist claimed she called our name, but not outside. Why not outside? Why call names outside only sometimes? Even chain restaurants keep better tabs on their customers. She led us down a hall to another waiting area - a small makeshift hallway created by two rows of facing chairs with an aisle down the middle. To the back of one row was a series of temporary partitions, and behind them were county desks and computers, each with a cheerless employee. The receptionist slapped a yellow post-it to the wall while we took our seats. Two suited men were talking about their land in the seats near to us, an elderly woman wheeled past us with her oxygen tank in tow, and an elderly man walked by with his blue-suited lawyer. The chairs were filled. The game was on. We had made it past the moat, over the alligators and to level two.
The open partition offices gave the air of freedom to speak, but really they were to keep you from creating a scene in front of everyone, since the waiting are was so near. When one of the appointments was finished up, the employee would approach the post-it, cross off a name and call a new one. There was a short lady who did this, and barely called the name out. She whispered it. She repeated it, in a whisper, and didn't bother to walk down the line of waiting people to repeat it, then she moved on to the next name.
The man with the appointment in the office in front of us had three properties. His government employee had trotted off somewhere to check a number and he turned to us and said "This isn't where I want to spend my Friday afternoon. You know, a hot dog vendor would do well outside today."
Our name was finally mispronounced from the post-it note on the wall by a man who introduced himself as Joe. We went into our office on the opposite side of the partitions - a real office with windows and light, and an L-shaped desk. On the short end of the L, a gavel rested. On the long side, Joe's computer and paperwork.
First, he called up our property file on the computer. It was complete with lot size, room information, and a photo taken in Dec. of 2004. The Christmas decorations were on the porch. He went over the numbers briefly, I corrected the half bath information he didn't have. Then I showed him my appraisal, which he sniffed at, since it was old.
"Let me do these numbers for you," he said as he clapped his keypad. "Ok, now this number might surprise you, or not...but this is your current fair market value of your house."
He turned the face of the calculator to us. It's digital numbers called out absurdity. Ninety seven thousand dollars.
"Can you tell me what this number is based on?" I asked. Joe explained that it was current fair market value set in January of 2008. Not much of an explanation. Where do they come up with this math - considering the housing market right now, my brain was racing.
"So you mean to tell me that if I were to slap up a For Sale sign today, I could ask 97 thousand dollars for my house that's built over an abandoned mineshaft, has had 60 foot deep subsidences in the backyard, and is crooked?"
I signed a paper that said I was not in agreement with the assessment, and Joe gave me a list of items I would need to bring to my formal hearing:
photos of subsidences
photos of house and land
copy of the deed (for lot size determination)
At no point during my phone call to set up this 15 minute interview was I told what I might need to bring. Joe added with a condescending tone to his list, "Make sure you bring everything. I'll be here for that hearing, and if you don't have it all, you won't get anywhere."
On my way out, I filled out the request for a formal hearing form, which didn't match up with the intial form I received in the mail at all. Then I was told there was a five dollar filing fee.
Not being told what to bring to the intial meeting meant that they were pretty much sure people would get nowhere with an informal hearing, and would need the formal hearing. Five bucks per person adds up quickly. I thought of the first man who stopped and asked "Informal?" He was right.
I'll be contacted about a date for my formal hearing in Sept. I'll have all my ducks in a row by then. Once I have the hearing, I won't hear from them on a decision until October.