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Despite Attacks, Assessor Gets High Marks


First came the audit and then the ultimatum from Mayor L. Douglas Wilder: Everyone in the real estate assessor's office must reapply for their jobs.

But just how is the office faring under new City Assessor James Hester?

Lost in the fracas at City Hall, the assessor's office has largely flown under the radar. Wilder demanded the audit because he didn't understand the "methodology" deployed by Hester, appointed by City Council in January 2006. Wilder says citizens were calling his office upset over their tax bills.

But Hester says no one on Wilder's staff ever approached his office or his staff inquiring about methodologies. "A lot of it was instigated because citizens, when they have a question or complaint about their assessment, the first call they make is to the mayor's office," Hester says. "Or they call the City Council members."

It's the same ritual every year. Tax bills go out and people complain. How many calls and complaints this year? The usual, Hester says, until Wilder publicly demanded the audit in late February. As for his methodology, it's the same one — based on recent, nearby sales of homes — used by every real estate assessor.

Citizens receive their tax bills in January, and have until March 2 to file an appeal. A week before the deadline, the office had received 350 appeals, Hester says. In the last week, Hester had expected appeals to increase by another 700 or so.

Then Wilder tossed his "hand grenade," and more than 1,700 appeals flooded in.

"Suddenly, the backlash started coming," Hester says.

By most accounts, Hester has stabilized the office after a rough patch that started in 2000, when state tax officials found the assessor was grossly underassessing properties, which meant millions in uncollected tax revenue. The next assessor, James Vinson, was fired after giving himself a healthy tax break. And the last assessor, Richie McKeithen, left to take the assessor's job in Hampton in 2005.

"They've gone through so much turmoil. It's been constant turnover," says Linwood "Woody" Aron, who sits on the Board of Zoning Appeals. "What the office needs now is to get its assessments stabilized. I guesstimated it would take [Hester] three years to get it under control, and I think he's got it under control now."

As for the assessments themselves, the Virginia Department of Taxation, which reviews the tax rolls of every jurisdiction each year, found the Richmond assessor's office operating smoothly in 2006. A recent sampling of assessment data by a private contractor found the sales-to-assessment ratio, using about 700 real estate transactions over seven months in 2006, was 95 percent.

Ninety percent is considered ideal, says Thomas E. Morelli, senior property appraisal consultant for the state tax department.

Lately, the office environment hasn't been ideal for city appraisers. Last week City Council members met with legislative staffers and the assessor's office to assuage their fears. For Appraiser Lincet Parks, who moved with her two small children and two pet cats from Texas in October, the past couple of weeks have been tough.

She was told April 24 she'd have to reapply for her job. A couple of days later, she was forced out of her apartment in Boulder Springs because a gunman had holed himself up on the second floor. She and her two children, 7 and 9, live on the third floor.

"My life is just great," she says. S

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