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Voter and candidate apathy this year is best expressed in the little-discussed Initiative 51 measure on the ballot Tuesday. The measure would give D.C. taxpayers the power to challenge tax breaks granted to commercial property owners. It would also open appeals hearings to the public and designate a public “advocate” to keep watch on tax appeals.
Even though the Service Employees International Union Local 82 waged an expensive seven-year battle with downtown office-building owners to put this measure before D.C. voters, the average voter probably thinks Initiative 51 is just another cockamamie statehood proposal.
Tenacious property tax-appeals watchdog Marie Drissel, who has fought hard and long to bring sunshine to the system, says opening hearings will force downtown landlords to reveal income and expense information to competitors who could then lure away their tenants. “This is like revealing trade secrets, like telling Coca-Cola it has to reveal its formula,” Drissel said, adding that the measure would contribute to business flight from the District. She maintains that Initiative 51 is part of the unions’ bitter fight to organize workers in buildings owned by downtown real estate mogul Oliver Carr.
Maybe, responds Phil Mendelson, co-chair of the union-financed “Right to Know” committee which last week began sending out mailings urging voters to back Initiative 51. “But I don’t think that’s the basis on which the initiative should be judged,” he said.
“I look at it, first and foremost, as the ability to open up the process and enable a third party to challenge assessments when it appears the government isn’t doing its job,” Mendelson said. He should know. Mendelson successfully fought unwarranted tax breaks awarded to the 4000 Wisconsin Ave. NW development in 1989.
LL supports Initiative 51. We have chronicled the business community’s success in manipulating the appeals process and depriving the city of millions in tax revenues. We also watched the commercial landlords fight tooth and nail to keep this proposal off the ballot. True, as Drissel says, the current appeals board is much less prone to manipulation than previous boards. But there is no guarantee the process will remain fair without Initiative 51.