Buried in budget legislation [PDF, p.121] submitted today to the D.C. Council are a number of changes to the District’s property-tax appeals process.
The Board of Real Property Assessment Appeals (BRPAA—-pronounced “BURP-uh”) has had its share of trouble over the years. The board came in for a harsh review last fall from D.C. Auditor Deborah K. Nichols, who wrote that longtime chair Paul Strauss had “provided a dubious level of service to residents and businesses of the District of Columbia.” Earlier this year, the board was again subject to unflattering headlines when one member resigned, publicly citing mismanagement by interim chair Towanda Paul-Bryant. And then, news that tax appeals had cut city revenues by some $100 million led to widespread calls for BRPAA reform.
And reform is what they shall get. Attorney General Peter Nickles says he convened members of BRPAA and the city finance office earlier this month: “I said, you know this agency does not appear to me to be working.”
One change is clearly aimed at improving the board’s efficiency. Where previously appeals of any size were required to be heard by three-member panels, the new legislation says that appeals on individually owned residences or any other property assessed at under $3 million can be heard by a single board member. Panels of multiple members, under the proposal, can still be used in those circumstances if the owner and city agree to do so. The changes would certainly help the board, which has only 10 of 18 slots filled, move cases through the system.
But here’s what is probably the most momentous and controversial change: Except for single-family residences, the city will be able to appeal the board’s rulings in the same way that a property owner may: by petitioning the D.C. Superior Court. Under the current rules, the city is impotent to challenge a BRPAA ruling unfavorable to the city. This takes away a clear advantage the property owner has under the current system; under the proposal, in order to get a adjusted assessment, a property owner may be forced to spend much more time and money pursuing a favorable judgment through the courts. Nickles says that Maryland handles their cases the same way.
The proposed legislation also clarifies that the burden of proof lies on the owner to “demonstrate by a preponderance of the evidence that the assessment of the real property does not represent the estimated market value or that the classification of the real property is erroneous.” It also streamlines various notice periods and deadlines in order to keep cases moving.
There is one proposal LL thinks everyone can get behind: The board will be statutorily required, for the first time, to post its decisions on the Internet—-remedying a longstanding, widespread gripe about the board’s operations.
Nickles says, if passed, this legislation might not be the end of BRPAA reform—-he takes very seriously suggestions, most prominently from Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans, that the board should be professionalized—-taking the decisions away from the current part-time members who make $50 an hour. “You can’t just take a hit of a $100 million bucks and say, ‘What happened here?'” he says. “It’s unacceptable!”