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Votes

Worth the Cost?

Assessments rise, and taxpayers argue over whether they see enough rewards.

When the value of a home goes up, that should be a good thing.

The owners could sell the house for more money, their investment in their home could pay off big someday, Thomas Rice said. It also means they care about where they live, their neighborhood and their county, and they want to keep their homes in good shape and to keep the area in good shape.

Rice, the head of the county’s department of real estate assessment, told the Arlington County Board Saturday that home values went up dramatically this year, with the average single-family home, including condominiums, worth $269,500 — 21.1 percent more than last year, Rice said. That’s an average, with some assessments going up much more.

That’s a good thing, Rice said. It means county residents want to stay in Arlington, and are investing in their homes.

It also means they pay more taxes, and that leaves some county homeowners feeling a little torn, not least because it’s a dramatic increase from years past.

"It’s been the subject of discussions, that assessments have gone up quite a bit," said Carol Rakatansky, president of the Columbia Heights Civic Association. "There’s a lot of buzz around this. It’s a surprise the same numbers coming in the mail for years, and then see that they’ve gone up."

From 1994 to 1999, the average home value in Arlington only increased 3.9 percent spread over six years, going from $184,250 to $191,350, after three years of decreasing values. Since then, the value of the average home has increased 40.1 percent over the last three years, hitting $269,500 this year.

<b>Value Now, Tax Rate Later?</b>

<bt>County Manager Ron Carlee told Board members he and his staff were just there to let them know about increased assessments. "This is not a discussion of taxes," he said. "The discussion of taxes is a discussion for another day."

But county residents and taxpayers took the opportunity to talk about taxes anyway. Tim Wise, president of the Arlington County Taxpayers’ Association, criticized Carlee for projecting no decrease in county tax rates, in light of the assessment increases.

"That … must surely rate as one of the loudest slaps in the face to taxpayers that any bureaucrat ever attempted," Wise said, questioning the wisdom of committing to the same $1.023 tax rate the county has levied over the last two years while home values increase dramatically.

Rakatansky said she wasn’t ready to condemn county decisions on assessments, or on taxes, but she was concerned. "Nothing I’ve seen tells me it wasn’t fair," she said.

"The complaints I’ve heard, and not just from my neighbors, are issues with people concerned about not having any warning," Rakatansky continued, "particularly older people, some on fixed incomes, some retired."

Long-term residents, people who have stayed in the same home for years, can often ill afford an increase in their tax bill. They’re also less likely to be considering moving, and less likely to follow the real estate market, she said. "They can’t prepare for this," Rakatansky said.

<b>Not So Affordable</b>

<bt>Lora Rinker, head of the Arlington Street People’s Assistance Network, said the tax assessment increase makes it hard for her volunteers to find a home for the homeless.

Rinker sees the issue reflected in the tax bill in her own Ashton Heights home. She also sees it at work, when A-SPAN volunteers look for rental units or a very few homes that can be financed by homeless getting off the streets, usually working in low-wage jobs. Increased property taxes usually translate to increased rent.

But that situation is preferable to the alternative, she said.

"The real problem is, if the county decides to lower the tax rate to offset the increase," she said. That move could endanger county programs, eliminating the few housing options that homeless, low-wage workers can afford, she said.

"I think most of the people who are getting this bill can afford it," she said. "The people who it hits the most, are the people who have lived here a long time, and are retired."

County Board members should look at programs that will give those people a break, she said, like property tax breaks for the elderly, some of which are already written into state law.

<b>$50,000 Increase</b>

<bt>Mark Scoble had concerns about more than just the elderly. Scoble, president of the Westover Civic Association, lives in a two-bedroom home on Kentucky Street. His home’s assessed value by the county went from $205,300 last year to $255,300 this year, translating to a $512 increase in his county taxes if the rate stays the same.

"I wasn’t prepared to see this kind of increase," Scoble said. "All of my friends and neighbors experienced a $50,000 increase. I felt that was a little unreasonable for a one-year period."

Until this year, he said, he felt that living in Arlington offered enough rewards to justify the taxes. This year is different. "As a single person, in a downturn, in a recession, I find it hard to keep up with this kind of increase," he said.

After 22 years in the county, "I expect to be selling my home, and moving on" to cheaper pastures, he said.

<b>Reassessing</b>

<bt>Scoble and Rakatansky also took issue with the idea of assessments increasing due to work on homes. "Arlington is full of houses that are 45 and 65 years old," Rakatansky said. "You can’t get a contractor, because everyone’s doing work. Homes of that age require it."

Scoble said in his neighborhood, there had been almost no additions to homes that would justify a $50,000 increase in assessments. "I can count on one hand the people who’ve done it in Westover," he said.

Even worse, the county failed to accurately consider the surrounding land, he said. Assessors used proximity of Westover Park, which Scoble called "a swimming pool or a skating rink," as justification for increased assessments.

When he called the county for an explanation, he got the standard song and dance, Scoble said, and was told that while he could request a reassessment, that could mean higher taxes.

"The person I talked to sounded like there wasn’t much to be gained," he said. "I was disgusted, and so were my neighbors."

In fact, Rice told board members on Saturday, any reassessment could mean higher taxes, but only a year later. A lower reassessment, on the other hand, can kick in right away.

Carlee encouraged county residents upset with their assessment to call the county’s real estate assessment department at 703-228-3920, or file a reassessment request online at <a href="http://www.arlington.va.us/dmf/realest.htm"> www.arlington.va.us/dmf/realest.htm</a>. The deadline for filing is March 1.