Waiting for this year's Richmond property tax bill to arrive, Susanne Arnold was all but giddy about what she believed would be a happy lightening of the load on her artist's income.
What she got, she says, looked like somebody's idea of a numbers joke.
The assessment on the Floyd Avenue house where she's lived since 1970 stayed almost the same — dropping only slightly from $240,000 to $235,000.
But Arnold found the devil in the details of her assessment letter — the assessment on the house actually shrank by $21,000, but the land underneath increased by $16,500, cancelling out most of the anticipated tax bill savings.
“I just think it's peculiar,” Arnold says. “If the house is going down in value, the property should at the very least stay the same.”
A review of properties near Arnold's found a similar pattern. Home assessments dropped, while land assessments rose to make up most of the difference.
Richmond Assessor James D. Hester confirms the pattern, but says there's no conspiracy. His office, he says, is going to a different system for assessing homes and land that seeks to more accurately portray values.
“I want our assessments to be based on cost new, less depreciation,” Hester says. Translation: Assessed values should reflect how much it would cost to build the house today, while accounting for the depreciation on that house over time.
Previously, city homes were assessed based on “dollars-per-square-foot” of living area, Hester says, and the value of the land below has traditionally been undervalued.
The assessor's office, he says, has been in the process of phasing in the new assessment method for three years.
While many anticipate smaller assessments, Hester says that's premature.
“The market level in Richmond has not been seriously impacted yet,” Hester says. “I see it coming. It just hadn't shown up by Dec. 30 of 2008 [when assessments were completed].”
Hester warns homeowners like Arnold to be careful what they wish for..
“People seem to think we have a problem if assessments go up a little every year — wait till they go down,” he says. “If our tax base were to drop say 10 percent in a year's time and if they don't do anything with the tax rate, [the city will] have 10 percent less revenue. Then you see people scrambling.”