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Land use value to be rolled back

Farm BillBy MELINDA WILLIAMS

melinda@www.southwesttimes.com

An increase in the real estate tax rate was supposed to be the topic of a Monday night public hearing, but it was a change in the land use value assessment rate for agriculture land that received the most attention.

Jeff Reeves of Robinson District said increasing the real estate tax rate to equalize revenues “makes perfect sense,” but it’s another change that was made by Commissioner of the Revenue Trina Rupe without the knowledge of the public or board of supervisors that concerns him.

State code allows Rupe to adjust the land use value during reassessment years, without the requirement of advertisements, a public hearing or consultation with the board of supervisors, according to county officials.

Reeves asked how many supervisors were aware before last week that the assessed value for agriculture land is supposed to be changed from $520 to $600 per acre.

When no one raised a hand, he said, “That ought to be worrisome to begin with. If our supervisors don’t even know about a proposed change that affects 100,000 acres in this county, that’s worrisome to me.”

He equated the situation to taxation without representation, and said it would result in “a 25 percent increase on agriculture while the rest of the county’s tax rate stays the same.”

“That’s not very equitable, I don’t believe,” Reeves said. He charged that such an increase would make Pulaski County’s tax rate per acre for agriculture the highest of any county west of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Alan Graybeal of Dublin said his taxes will increase 28 percent from 2014 to 2015 if the land use value is changed and the real estate tax rate is increased from 59 cent per $100 of assessed value to 64 cents.

An 8 percent drop in real estate tax values during the reassessment prompted the need to increase the rate by 5 cents. Even with the change, the county still will bring in about $75,000 less real estate revenue in fiscal year 2015-16 than the current fiscal year, according to latest estimates.

No one spoke against the change in the real estate tax rate, but a number of farmers expressed concern over the increase in land use values.

According to County Administrator Pete Huber, this is the first time in the county’s history that there has been a decline in real estate values. His figures show that increasing both the land use value and real estate tax rate “results in a 77-cent per acre increase in the amount of tax owed by farmers utilizing use value taxation.”

Tim Sutphin of Robinson District said he will be paying more than $2,000 in taxes per year if both are implemented.

Several farmers asked that the board of supervisors pass an ordinance requiring “openness” in the setting of land use values in the future, and that the board request Rupe to roll back the value to $520.

Andy Pratt of Draper said none of the farmers attending Monday night’s meeting has any problem “paying our fair share” or even raising the land use value to an appropriate level “if it’s done clearly and equally.” However, he said he’s “not okay with the fact a 24 percent increase tried to be slipped through without any transparency.”

Angela Clevinger of Pulaski County Education Association spoke in favor of the real estate tax rate change. She said the revenue is needed to provide the best schools for the county’s most value resources — its children.

E.W. Harless went to bat for Rupe, saying it would be inappropriate for the board of supervisors to ask an elected constitutional officer to override a decision. He charged that farmers don’t pay personal property taxes on farm equipment, and said they “can’t have their cake and eat it, too.”

Harless added, “I’m not against farmers getting a break, but we’ve got kids to educate, and the money has to come from somewhere … I’ll be ashamed if [supervisors] don’t back up your commissioner of the revenue.”

Mike Miller of Newbern said he isn’t a farmer and, as such, doesn’t “have a dog in this fight.” However, he said he does respect farmers and he doesn’t think it’s right “for farmers to pay more than the rest of us.”

Laura Flory, a Pulaski County High School graduate who chose to stay in the county and farm, said she received a “wonderful” education in Pulaski County, but “new schools and facilities aren’t always the way to provide the best for the children of the county.”

She said all the farmers are asking is “be open with us and maybe we can work something out.”

Sutphin reminded the board that agriculture doesn’t use a lot of county services. “We feel like we were railroaded a little bit on this deal. I think we’re being asked to pay more than our fair share.”

B.J. Ratliff said, “We’re not here to knock education or teachers’ jobs. We just want you to let us know” when changes are being considered for land use values.

Huber explained that the state code “boxes” Rupe into making decisions regarding land use values while “boxing out” county government officials. He explained that the purpose of the land use program is to encourage preservation of farmland and discourage subdivision by “providing farmers with a break” on valuations.

Huber suggested a solution for the problem may be to develop an Agriculture Advisory Board to work with the county and Rupe on land use matters.

Robinson District Supervisor Charles Bopp pointed out the only way to change state law requiring a public notice and hearing for land use value changes would be through an act of Virginia General Assembly.

Huber said that’s not likely because the purpose of having the commissioner of revenue make the decision was to keep the program from becoming “political.”

Bopp, a farmer himself, said he felt “blindsided” when he found out the impact the proposed land use value change was going to have on farmers.

“It was a nice idea, but the commissioner of the revenue didn’t even involve you, and there are two farmers on the board,” said Mike Cox of Allisonia.

Massie District Supervisor Andy McCready said 1,202 properties consisting of 66,909 acres were enrolled in the land use program in 2014.

Draper District Supervisor Dean Pratt, the other farmer on the board, said this is the worst he’s felt in the 11 years he’s been on the board because he feels the change “was done behind everyone’s back.” Looking at Rupe, he said the board of supervisors has to advertise and hold a public hearing if it wants to change a tax rate, so he didn’t think it was true the [land use] rate was being changed without the same process.

“I was proved wrong,” he said to Rupe. “I would love to see you roll this back.”

Pratt’s motion to approve a 5-cent increase in the real estate tax rate passed unanimously.

Pratt pointed out the supervisors can ask Rupe to reconsider the land use value assessment, but they have no authority to make her change it. He then made a motion requesting Rupe reconsider the assessment and “work in a more open environment to set a rate.” Bopp seconded the motion, which passed unanimously.

Prior to voting on the second motion, McCready pointed out it is Rupe’s “exclusive responsibility” and her job to set the value. “We have no more pull than anyone else. It would be no different than us asking the sheriff to arrest someone,” he said.

Following the vote, Rupe said she will roll back the rate to $520 per acre if that is the board’s desire. However, she reminded them that the rate can’t be changed again until there is another reassessment in four to six years.

It was pointed out that changing the value also will delay the issuance of tax tickets. The board is expected to address that issue after receiving additional information on printing deadlines.

According to Virginia Code Section 58.1-3236 (A) “In valuing real estate for purposes of taxation by any county, city or town which has adopted an ordinance pursuant to this article, the commissioner of the revenue or duly appointed assessor shall consider only those indicia of value which such real estate has for agricultural, horticultural, forest or open space use, and real estate taxes for such jurisdiction shall be extended upon the value so determined. In addition to use of [her] personal knowledge, judgment and experience as to the value of real estate in agricultural, horticultural, forest or open space use, [she] shall, in arriving at the value of such land, consider available evidence of agricultural, horticultural, forest or open space capability, and the recommendations of value of such real estate as made by the State Land Evaluation Advisory Council (SLEAC).

SLEAC points out on its website that the “local assessing office is not required to use the estimates” it provides.

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