If you’re a renter, you can be forgiven for not knowing what the property assessor does. Here’s how it works: The county commission sets the tax rate per $100 in property value. Then the assessor assigns a value to every piece of property in the county. (All told, it’s 385,000 properties.) The more the assessor says your property is worth, the more you pay in property taxes. The primaries for Shelby County Property Assessor are heated because the last time the property assessor completed a major reassessment was January 1, 2009, just after the housing market collapsed, and a lot of people thought that, given the market at the time, their 2009 assessment was too high.
Steve Webster is one of them. Webster is running against the current property assessor Cheyenne Johnson in the Democratic primary.
“Oh, yeah. The property assessment was too high,” Webster said.
In 2003, before the housing market collapsed, Webster was working as a realtor and he bought a house for himself in Collierville for $370,000. In 2009, after almost every corner of Shelby County was ravaged by foreclosures, the property assessor’s office put the value of Webster’s house at $346,600. Webster says that value wasn’t fair, “They tried to give a slight cushion in there, but the tax value? I didn’t like it.”
Webster walked away from his house and his mortgage and moved into an apartment in Memphis. Webster says it wasn’t just the assessment that contributed to that decision—his realty business had slowed down, and, at the end of the day, he was paying a mortgage that was more than the house was worth—but he says the amount he was expected to pay in property tax didn’t help. Webster’s house went into foreclosure and in 2011 a bank bought it for about $280,000, almost $100,000 less than what Webster paid, and almost $70,000 less than the value the property assessor put on it that year. That’s part of the reason Webster is running.
“I think it’s unfortunate that with these trying times of the economy, that assessments aren’t equal to what the current foreclosure values are,” Webster said.
Tim Walton is also running for property assessor, but in the Republican primary. Still, like Webster, Walton thinks those 2009 property assessments were too high. Walton describes himself as “primarily a technician.” He works as a real estate appraiser. And Governor Haslam appointed him to the Tennessee Real Estate Appraiser Commission. So, it’s not surprising that many of Walton’s suggestions for improving assessments are technical.
“I’m going to take a very hard look at how they’re scrubbing the data,” Walton said.
And Walton says he can get the Tennessee State Board of Equalization, which oversees all the property assessors in the state, to change the rules so that bank sales (a bank sale is when a bank turns around and sells a house it has foreclosed on) play more of a role in determining property values in Shelby County. Currently, the state limits the ways the assessor can factor bank sales and foreclosures into assessments, because the parties in those transactions are considered to be under too much external financial and logistical pressure to sell the house, to come up with a truly accurate price. Walton thinks some of the state rules are outmoded.
“I’ve got the requisite knowledge and understanding that I can go and explain it to them and maybe have them take another look at this,” Walton said.
John Bogan, who works in the property assessor’s office, is running against Walton in the Republican primary. Bogan says he can get fairer property assessments, but he won’t say how, because he says people were stealing ideas off his website.
“I can’t give you specifics right now,” Bogan said.
Cheyenne Johnson is the current property assessor. She’s heard the criticism of her 2009 assessment, but she says that assessment was done fairly. Johnson says, given the state’s constrictions, her assessment accurately portrayed the four years between 2005 and 2009.
“So, when January 1, 2009 came around, we were looking back,” Johnson said.
Johnson says if the current trends continue, the 2013 assessment, which looks back on 2009-2012, will be much lower than the 2009 assessment, regardless of who is in office.