CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- More than 24,000 Kanawha County homeowners and almost 3,500 business owners just got notices telling them their property taxes are going up by more than 10 percent this year.
County tax records show property appraisals going up steadily for the past five years, despite a weak economy and slow home sales. Some property owners don't understand why their taxes keep going up, even though their houses may be worth less on the market. Local real estate agents have also questioned how officials for the Kanawha County Assessor's office arrive at property appraisals.
"They've got people so mad they can't see straight," said Kanawha County Commission President Kent Carper.
But Steve Duffield, commercial real estate supervisor for new Kanawha County Assessor Sallie Robinson and former chief deputy assessor, said state tax officials have strict guidelines on how property should be assessed, and county officials have to follow the rules.
"We have no options; we have to do it," he said.
Under state law, property is assessed at 60 percent of its appraised value. In theory, the appraised value is also the property's market value, but state tax officials say property in West Virginia has been historically undervalued. State tax officials have been pushing county assessors to reassess property all over the state and bring values up.
When the national housing bubble burst in 2008, home values all over the country plummeted. But Duffield said that while some high-end homes in Kanawha Valley lost value over the past few years, the state was largely spared the effects of the housing crash. He said values for most average homes have stayed about the same.
But still, the assessors have been under constant pressure from the state to bring the assessments up. This year, state tax officials conducted audits of county assessors all over the state and issued reports. In most cases, they criticized the ways the counties determine tax values, and all but ordered them to adopt procedures that keep property taxes rising.
"This is all done by the Legislature and the state tax commissioner's office," said Carper. "Yes, the appraisals were historically too low. But it's the state that is grading the county assessors, and the grading is based on bringing in more revenue.
"The state is using a cattle prod to bring in more revenue for the state," he said.
But citizens aren't completely defenseless in trying to fight rising property taxes. Home and business owners can try to convince assessors that they made a mistake in determining the value of their property, and can petition the Kanawha County Commission's Board of Review and Equalization if they still have a problem. The Board of Review and Equalization convenes at the end of this month, and meets seven times through the end of February.
"My advice is to go to the assessor's office, meet with them in person, and take all the documents you have," Carper said. "If you're not satisfied with that, that's where we come in."
Duffield said assessors are willing to work with taxpayers to make sure their property taxes are as accurate as possible. "But the taxpayers are going to have to participate," he said.
Reach Rusty Marks at rustyma...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1215.