Will High Court Kill Assessment Process?
Supreme Court case could let homeowners bar inspection yet dispute tax assessment.
On Aug. 20, 2013, Vincent Milewski and Morganne MacDonald told the private appraiser hired to reassess property in the Town of Dover that, no, he couldn’t go inside their Lorimar Estates home. He could look around all he wanted from the outside, however.
The private appraisal firm, Gardiner Appraisal LLC, then sent the married couple a certified letter requesting an appointment because, “We must view the interior of your property for the town wide revaluation program.”
Responding, Milewski and MacDonald said an “interior home inspection is not legally required” and they did not want to give an “unknown stranger entry into our private and secure residence.”
Gardiner then sent their 2013 home assessment at $307,100 – a 12.1 percent increase.
Gardiner appraisers said the home could have been remodeled since the last assessment in 2004, “it is not fair to assume that there have been no improvements” since then, and a 12 percent increase in values in that neighborhood was “not uncommon.”
In their decision, Court of Appeals judges dismissed the appeal so casually that they didn’t give the state Department of Revenue a chance to file a legal brief in the case. Court of Appeals judges also said the decision should not be published – legal speak for “no big deal.”
But the case involves the foundations of administering Wisconsin’s $10.6-billion property tax system. It’s a very big deal.
Asking that DOR be allowed to file a brief, DOR attorney Kelly Altschul said the laws in question “have been an essential part of the substantive and procedural basis for the assessment of accurate, efficient and uniform property tax in the state of Wisconsin for over 60 years.”
This case “is a matter of great importance,” Altschul added.
Madison City Assessor Mark Hanson agreed: “If assessors are restricted from viewing the interior of properties, that would be a major change in how we do our work, from collecting data to establishing values to defending values.”
But, in a signal that lower courts may have been wrong, the state Supreme Court recently agreed to decide whether state law – which says homeowners must accept whatever assessed value is assigned them, if they deny access to the home interior – violates the federal Fourth Amendment right to privacy.
The Supreme Court’s decision in this case could give hundreds of thousands of Wisconsin homeowners a new legal way to fight assessments that determine how much they pay in property taxes. Residential assessments, including single-and multi-family properties, make up 70 percent of Wisconsin’s total tax base; their owners pay that percentage of all property taxes.
Finally, the Supreme Court ruling could impact the Wisconsin Constitution’s “uniformity” clause, which says that all types of property must be assessed equally for property tax purposes.
State law requires that property be valued according to the Revenue Department’s manual, which says: “No person shall be allowed to appear before the board of review … or to contest the amount of any assessment of real or personal property if the person has refused a reasonable written request by certified mail of the assessor to view such property.”
The conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty (WILL) pushed the Supreme Court to take the case, arguing that “government cannot punish people” for exercising their Fourth Amendment right to privacy.
And, when they checked further, Milewski and MacDonald found that they may have been discriminated against, their lawyers added.
“While 39 of (Lorimar Estates) parcels decreased in value – by an average of 5.8 percent – four parcels increased in value – by an average of 10.01 percent,” WILL officials said. “What did those four homes have in common? None of their owners permitted Gardiner to search the interior of their homes.”
Todd Berry, president of the nonprofit Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance, questions whether the case belongs in the courts. “Ultimately,” he says, “this is another example where opponents turn to the courts, which are asked to do too much at all levels.”