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Assessments Prompt Tax Fears

Property values raise tax question for many

When property values in Arlington jumped by more than 20 percent in 2002, many homeowners were shocked to see their tax bills jump by nearly $500.

A 20.1 percent increase in the value of the average Arlington single-family home meant that the average homeowner saw his tax bill go up by $461. Those increases led to public outcry so loud that County Board members saw fit to lower the tax rate for the first time in years.

But assessments released last week show that the value of the average home in Arlington rose from $269,500 to $316,000 percent, leaving homeowners again facing tax increases of $461.

According to a summary released by county officials Friday, Jan. 17, the average single family home rose in value by 17 percent in the last year, while condominiums rose 28 percent and rental apartment buildings increased 16 percent.

That means single family homes on average are now assessed at $316,000 and condominiums come in at $189,600. Commercial property assessments also rose this year, by 8.5 percent.

Those are just averages – in some places, assessments rose more dramatically. Peter Owen, president of the Clarendon-Courthouse Civic Association, said his neighborhood is one of those locations.

Owen’s own assessment rose more than 25 percent this year. The value of his property has nearly doubled since he bought it in 1998.

Other homeowners across the county met their assessments with mixed reactions “Sure the property is worth a lot if you want to sell it,” said Scott Springston, “But for the people who want to stay, it’s just an enormous burden.”

Springston, the president of the Cherrydale Citizens Association, said residents in his neighborhood, many of whom are retired, are particularly vulnerable to rising assessments and the tax burden that comes along.

But at least they have the option of selling for a profit. “The increases are tough to swallow, but on the other hand is that people do recognize that the values have gone up,” said David Haring, president of the Yorktown Civic Association.

ASSESSMENTS REFLECT QUALITY of life, Owen said, so rising property values don’t bother him. “The assessment is sort of a weird thing,” he said. “It represents the reality of one thing and the possibility of another.”

The reality, he says, is that Arlington continues to be a desirable place to live, where high demand for housing drives assessments up.

That’s true, according to county officials. In the county’s summary of 2003 assessments, high demand for single-family and commercial property was cited as the top factor in driving real estate values up again this year.

Of course Owen admits the possibility of a heavy tax burden.

Stephanie Marcus is already feeling that burden in the North Rosslyn neighborhood. Marcus called the increase in assessments “quite appalling,” and said that she and her husband Ken plan to appeal.

State law prohibits the county board and the county manager from changing assessments, but residents can file an appeal with the Department of Real Estate or with the Board of Equalization.

Marcus’ assessment rose by 28 percent, even more than Owen’s this year.

INCREASES LIKE THAT, added on to already high property values, signal problems on the horizon for some. “It’s already way too high, and this is just pushing us to the brink of something,” said Springston, who paid about $5,000 in property taxes last year, $1,000 more than he paid in 2001.

“I don’t think there’s anybody who’s too happy about it,” he said, but added, “I don’t know what we can do about it.”

Tim Wise, president of the Arlington County Taxpayers Association, has a simple idea--lower the tax rate by the same percentage assessments increase.

That would mean this year the county could need to lower the tax rate by 17 percent, and owners of single-family homes would pay the same amount in property taxes in 2003 that they did in 2002.

If that happened, the skyrocketing assessments would become a non-issue. “If I don’t pay any more taxes this year, then I don’t care about the assessment,” Wise said.

The board did drop the residential tax rate by three cents last year, the first such drop in five years, but the rate decrease didn’t come close to making up for the rise in assessments, and residents still paid more to the county in property taxes.

LAST YEAR’S RATE cut was significant though, said Owen, who expects to see another cut this year. “I think it’s a no-brainer,” he said. “Just like last year Arlington could afford to lower the rate, and I’m sure they can again.”

Until the rate is set, no one even knows for sure if the assessment increases will mean larger tax bills, said Owen.

It’s naive to think you won’t be paying more, Wise countered, because board members want the government, rather than homeowners, to benefit from rising property values.

“The courthouse gang works to make sure that the increased assessments accrue to the benefit of larger government,” he said.

Owen said the rising values have tempted some in his neighborhood to consider selling and moving out of the county. “But then the question is what do you buy?’” he said, noting that lower property tax assessments in neighboring counties are countered with higher tax rates. “You have to live somewhere,” he said.