POWHATAN – The Powhatan County Board of Supervisors recently voted unanimously to create an in-house assessor’s office and shift the county to annual real estate assessments.
The decision was made at the board’s workshop on Monday, April 19 amid some controversy about where this office would be housed. The board voted 5-0 to agree with county administrator Ned Smither’s recommendation of creating the new office under his authority.
However, Jamie Timberlake, commissioner of the revenue, asserted prior to the meeting and during the public comment period at the meeting that assessments should be under the purview of his office and the additional staff that will be hired to run the office should be housed there.
Since at least 2014, reassessments in Powhatan County has been conducted by an outside contractor, Wampler Eames Appraisal Group Ltd. The company was hired by the county administrator at the time with authority from the board, said Eric Lansing, assistant county attorney, who spoke at the board’s request.
Wampler Eames will still complete the two-year reassessment that will determine the fair market value of properties in Powhatan as of Jan. 1, 2022.
Seven members of the public also spoke during the public comment periods asking either for a deferral of the vote, which some said should have been advertised and had a public hearing, or that the board go ahead and approve the office but have it under Timberlake’s control. One man also tried to speak after the public comment period was over and the board began its discussion but was asked to leave when he refused to stop speaking.
Timberlake had shared an open letter in the county the week before, which was also shared as a letter to the editor in the April 21 edition of the Powhatan Today. The letter made his case on why he believes a local assessor’s office, which he agreed is needed, should be in the commissioner of the revenue’s office. One of his arguments, and one that was championed by several local residents, was that having the new office under the commissioner of the revenue would be in line with the Constitution of Virginia and its goal of establishing checks and balances.
In answer to that, the board’s discussion on the assessor’s office began with a legal explanation from Lansing on why housing the new department within the commissioner of the revenue’s office was an option the board of supervisors had but only one of four allowed by law.
Lansing also argued that the board of equalization, not the commissioner of revenue, is where the Code of Virginia established a system of checks and balances in the real estate assessment system. This “neutral body” appointed by the circuit court is the model of checks and balances in every locality in Virginia, he said.
After his overview explanation, Lansing answered additional questions from the board about the legal aspects of their decision before some of the board members spoke about their decision and then ultimately voted to create the office.
Recognizing a need
The board has been discussing the creation of an in-house assessor’s office for several months as part of the budget discussion for fiscal year (FY) 2022 and Smither’s work on building a 10-year budget and CIP for the county.
At the request of Bill Cox, who represents District 4, Smither laid out a cost comparison during the board’s April 2 budget workshop for hiring an independent appraiser for reassessments every two years versus creating an in-house office that does one annually.
According to the document, which projected out costs for 10 years, an independent appraiser would cost $110,000 in FY 2022 and increase an average of $3,000 to $4,000 every year, reaching $143,525 in FY 2031.
By comparison, a new assessment office that is not yet fully staffed would cost $278,750 in FY 2022, increase to $452,875 in FY 2023, and go up notably each year, reaching $603,729 in FY 2031.
While this is a significant cost difference, Smither said the county would still come out ahead and the benefits would include having an annual reassessment process with more accurate and detailed results. This would also help the county’s composite index, which is used by the state to determine each locality’s ability to fund their school system.
During recent budget discussions, Dr. Eric Jones, superintendent, has stressed the importance of the county’s composite index and pointed out that Powhatan has lost a total of almost $4 million in state funding since FY 2016 tied to the composite index.
Smither had proposed hiring a chief deputy real estate assessor who could begin the work of creating the office. He said in a separate interview he wants to have that person in place by July 1, which was the main reason for moving forward with the vote. The new employee would be in place to handle hiring two deputy II real estate assessors and an office assistant that would complete the four-person office.
Once in place, they could begin working toward the in-house real estate assessment that would determine the fair market value on properties as of Jan. 1, 2023.
Code of Virginia
When Timberlake spoke to the board on April 19 during the public comment period, he said he believes the Constitution of Virginia puts the responsibility for the assessment process in his office and the Code of Virginia backs it up.
According to Va. Code § 58.1-3270, the local governing body can provide for an annual or biennial assessment and equalization of real estate for local taxation by the commissioner of the revenue.
However, under Va. Code § 58.1-3274, four specific localities, including Powhatan, are allowed to establish a real estate assessment department. The resolution the board adopted specifically mentions this section of code. The bill that authorized this exemption for Powhatan was introduced in 2004 by Del. Lee Ware, R-65.
The section says that “the department shall consist of such members as the governing body of such county shall deem necessary. The compensation and terms of office of department members shall be fixed by the governing body.”
Timberlake argued that the standard is that assessments are under the commissioner of the revenue’s office and the code section the county used “allows an exemption to the standard.”
In his argument, he also referenced the fiscal impact statement to the bill but was actually quoting an assessment of the bill offered by the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation (VFBF). The primary benefit, according to the VFBF, was that the bill also allowed Powhatan to create a joint real estate assessment office with another locality. Under cons, the opinion was that the current system puts assessments under the commissioner of the revenue, who is an elected officer accountable to the public.
That direct accountability would be lost if the office were moved into an administrative division, and the current form is more in line with more rural character localities, according to the federation’s opinion.
Timberlake suggested either deferring the vote or recommending it stay under the commissioner of the revenue’s office.
When the actual discussion on the resolution was introduced, Smither argued that many of Virginia’s best managed localities have the assessor’s office as a distinct agency. He commended the job Timberlake has done but said a separate department is a best practice.
Lansing said he was tasked with addressing misunderstandings and questions regarding the real estate assessment process from a legal perspective. He said the commissioner of revenue is mentioned in the Constitution of Virginia but no specific duties are ascribed there.
State code says the board of supervisors hires and appoints the assessors and gives them several options to do so, including a professional assessor or a board of assessors (Va. Const. 58.1-3275), the commissioner of the revenue (Va. Code § 58.1-3270), or a real estate assessment department (Va. Code § 58.1-3274). In the case of the department, the board of supervisors chooses how many people are in it and their compensation.
Lansing also showed a 2016 memorandum of understanding between the board of supervisors and the commissioner of the revenue to appoint the commissioner to serve as the “full-time person responsible to the biennial reassessment of real property” with Wampler doing the assessments and reporting to the commissioner. In that agreement, one of the conditions is that the agreement only lasts one year and has to be renewed by both parties on an annual basis.
The early questions by the board were mostly clarification questions regarding the law as it pertains to the board’s power in this decision and making sure Lansing was comfortable with the resolution from a legal perspective, which he was.
Mike Byerly, District 3, thanked Timberlake for his service to the county but also made a point of commending Smither, who has received criticism for recommendations he brought to the board, and saying the final decisions are ultimately made by the board.
Byerly said he was looking for accuracy and fairness and to have “the best practices we can as a county.” He said that the entire board agreed that an in-house annual assessment is the best option for the county and the only question is who will oversee it.
David Williams, District 1, agreed with Byerly’s statement and said the board’s goal is to “do things better.”
Cox continued in the same theme, talking about the quality experience Smither brought to the county as county administrator, adding “you do not hire expertise of this quality to stay frozen in time, and you bring with it the expectation that there will be change.” He listed a variety of Smither’s achievements since he was hired in summer 2020 and the benefits they will bring to the county.
“I voted to hire Mr. Smither to plum his expertise, not to ignore it. My expectation when we hired him was that he would take the county operations to a higher level. This change is about best practices, enhanced efficiencies, and trust in Mr. Smither’s judgement,” Cox said.
Chairwoman Karin Carmack, District 5, said she thinks having a separate department adds an extra layer of protection to citizens because they do not have an elected official with hiring and firing capability over the assessor.
Timberlake was backed in his argument by several local residents who agreed with the board choosing to either defer or put the assessment office under him.
Kitty Osborne said she believes Timberlake is doing a great job and she didn’t think any of his responsibilities should be taken away without the public knowing. She asked for greater transparency in how the department will be run considering how important assessments are to residents.
Max Timberlake Jr. spoke on behalf of the Powhatan Farm Bureau’s board of director supporting Jamie Timberlake remaining in charge of real estate assessments. He said taking the assessment function out of the commissioner of the revenue’s office is in “direct conflict with three elections and 11,211 voters who voted in 2020.”
Keith Buch pointed out that he and many others voted for Jamie Timberlake “with the full understanding that he would have full responsibility for all assessments in Powhatan County, including real estate.” He acknowledged that the code allows the board to create a separate department under the county administrator but said the “rights of the voters and their desires need to be taken into consideration so that they don’t feel their vote in 2019 was hijacked by the board of supervisors.” He asked for more public notice so people who were for or against the change could come to voice their opinions.
David Anderson, who spoke at the end of the meeting, said he didn’t have comments about the merits of the board’s decision but questioned the process. He offered two suggestions to gain public trust, saying “the assessment resolution process was not worthy of gaining public trust.”
Anderson asked the board not to include major resolutions in a workshop, which are not advertised in the Powhatan Today, are sparsely attended, and, for most people, conjure the impression of a working session, not a decision making session. He also said that trustworthy decisions are made after collecting all of the relevant information and questioned why the commissioner of the revenue, who is integral to the assessment process, had to speak during the public comment period instead of being invited to share his opinion during discussion as other department heads often do.
“If a countywide elected official is seemingly given no respect, what message does that send to the common woman and man of the county,” he said.
Laura McFarland may be reached at LmcFarland@powhatantoday.com.