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Kreis: Summer Job

08/14/12 5:55PM By Don Kreis
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(Host) If you like to help people with their wedding vows, and poke around in other peoples' homes, commentator and Vermont Law School professor Don Kreis has just the summer job for you.

(Kreis) Summertime... and the livin' is NOT easy for a small group of Vermonters, of which I happen to be a member. I got into this fix because I like to perform weddings. And really, w ho wouldn't? You get to invoke the mighty power of the state, you bask in the reflected glow of newly united couples, -- and, at least between Memorial Day and Labor Day, you have a place to wear your seersucker.

Seeking those pleasures, I got myself elected as one of my town's justices of the peace. But, for reasons of history rather than logic, when you're elected a justice of the peace in Vermont you also become a member of a municipal body known as the Board of Civil Authority. And this time of year, while everyone else in Vermont is enjoying those lazy, hazy crazy days of summer, your local board of civil authority is hearing tax appeals. Specifically, board members are listening to their neighbors explaining why they think their real estate has been valued too lavishly for property tax purposes.

The good news is that you get to be a real estate voyeur, since every property that is the subject of a tax appeal has to be inspected. The bad news is that you're a body of amateurs, reviewing the work of experts - and subject to being overturned by a body of experts. The local board of listers, which makes the initial tax valuation determinations, has fancy software and, quite often, professional consultants.

A taxpayer who doesn't like what the board of civil authority decides can take her case to the state tax appraiser.

Are you getting the picture here? As a member of my local board of civil authority, I'm just a guy in seersucker, sandwiched, process-wise, between experts in real estate valuation.

Much of the time, the stakes are relatively small. But not always! For example, this year the Board of Civil Authority in Rockingham is deciding whether the local hydroelectric dam is worth 108 million dollars, as the listers contend, or just 86 million, as claimed by TransCanada, the big company that owns the facility.

If TransCanada is right, the town will lose 640 thousand dollars in tax revenue, this year alone.

Hearings before the Board of Civil Authority can get pretty heated, at least in my experience. So, as I spend yet another hot summer evening in the basement of my town hall, I find myself wondering yet again if maybe we should just abolish Boards of Civil Authority and let people like me get back to doing weddings.

But, on reflection, I think that would be a mistake. Property taxes are an important part of Vermont's social compact. We could consign the relevant decision making purely to the experts. But I expect it's better to have at least one step in the process that's all about the commonsense wisdom of neighbors simply listening to each other.
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