In Michigan, if you have a complaint against a tax assessor, you must present your case to a panel of three volunteers representing the government — but none for the taxpayer.
"There would likely be limited benefit in having a taxpayer on the committee," said Department of Treasury Spokesperson Terry Stanton. "They would not likely have the expertise to determine whether an assessor had committed malfeasance, misfeasance or nonfeasance."
Tell that to James Kress, a property owner who has a Ph.D. in physical chemistry and has had enough run-ins with his local assessment department to tell whether he's being treated fairly.
"Frankly, we are growing quite disturbed with regard to the [Salem] Township's pattern of proven, gross over-assessment of our property," he wrote in a letter to the Michigan Tax commission that he shared with Michigan Capitol Confidential. "We are beginning to come to the conclusion that the Township is being abusive, with a clear pattern of deliberate over-assessment, over-taxation and lack of uniformity in its assessment practices."
Kress has challenged every property assessment of his Salem Township home since 2008 and prevailed in each of them. He has spent thousands of dollars on the process and now keeps a professional appraiser on retainer. He is again challenging his assessment because he said the township failed to base the valuation on the order figured by the Michigan Tax Tribunal last year.
Even if it went with the lower figure, Kress's assessment was 3.4 percent higher than his neighbors; 2.8 percent more than the township average; and 3.51 percent more than the average for township board members. The Salem Township Tax Assessor did not return calls for comment.
"I am willing to pay my fair share of taxes, but not willing to be victimized by a mendacious taxing authority," he said.
Even though taxable value is capped in Michigan, Kress said he fears if he does not challenge an over-assessment, he will eventually be faced with a big tax bill when inflation starts to increase. Under Proposal A, taxes are capped at inflation or 5 percent, whichever is less. Inflation has not exceeded 5 percent in years.
While property owners like Kress can challenge assessment through local review boards and the Michigan Tax Tribunal, complaints about assessment practices must follow the nine step process listed on the Treasury Department's website.
Treasury department staffers review the complaint for jurisdiction and merit. The assessor is given an opportunity to respond. The response and the complaint are then reviewed by the Assessor Discipline Advisory Committee, a panel of three volunteers from "partner organizations," all with strong connections to government. The members are: Michael Woolford, equalization director for Monroe County; Barbara McDermott, assessor for Dearborn Heights; and Heather Frick, a staff attorney with the State Tax Commission.
If a complaint gets beyond the Assessor Discipline Advisory Committee, it then goes before the State Tax Commission, another panel of three members. These people, however, are appointed by the governor with the guidance of the state Senate, according to the State Tax Commission website.
Again, the general public has little representation on this panel, which includes: Doug Roberts, who has held a number of state administrative jobs; Barry Simon, a certified assessor, who worked for a number of years for the city of Southfield; and Robert Naftaly, a retired president and CEO of a Blue Cross Blue Shield subsidiary. Two of the Tax Commission members have served multiple terms since 2003.
The State Treasury Department says it cannot provide an exact number on how many complaints it gets because complaints are filed according to local unit with no tally of total complaints. Last year, seven complaints made it to the Discipline Review Board. The records of those cases are not available in an online database.
Those cases total 216 pages, according to the department’s Freedom of Information Act request coordinator, and to request copies would cost $224 in labor and copying fees.
The State Tax Commission has revoked licenses seven times since 2010, the first full year it assumed responsibility for evaluating assessor complaints.
Kress said he thinks the state could save itself a number of headaches by establishing a uniform process of assessment that people can read and actually use in determining if their own assessment was fair or not.
"The process now to appraise homes is opaque," he said. "I get the real impression that even the assessors don't understand what they are doing. We need a quantifiable methodology so that when taxpayers go to their review boards, both sides can deal with facts, not emotion."
Kress wants Salem Township to provide him with a methodology for its decision and if it fails to do that, and his assessment doesn't change, he said he will again take his case to the Michigan Tax Tribunal. He said he also will request that the township pay for his time and fees.
Currently, there are two bills before the Michigan State House Tax Committee that would give taxpayers some say in the assessment process. House Bill 5172 requires written consent for an assessor to enter a structure and prohibits assessors from increasing a valuation if a property owner says denies access. House Bill 5173 mandates those changes in the state tax assessment manual.