In a blatant attempt to capitalize on current public outrage regarding the Hamilton County Commissioners’ decision to eliminate Music Hall from the Save Our Icons sales tax vote, I am announcing a related series called WTF? Hamilton County Board of Revision.
Progressively-challenged Chris Monzel is the County Commissioner appointed to the Board that hears all complaints regarding property tax values, serving alongside Republican, Robert A. Goering, County Treasurer, and our most interesting Democrat-of-Record and Tweeter-extraordinaire, Dusty Rhodes. Both Mr. Rhodes and Mr. Monzel are up for re-election this fall and will appear on the same ballot as the grotesquely revised version of the sales tax vote.
When I first started to analyze the public records available on the County Auditor’s site, initially I focused on Western & Southern holdings, assuming that they were a special case and had received favored treatment over and above other commercial property owners. While it is not difficult to find under-valuations on the property they own, wacky-low numbers that can’t be explained by any discernible logic turned out to be quite common on commercial properties everywhere in the Central Business District and they all had one thing in common: owners had filed complaints with the Board of Revision, many on multiple occasions, and received rulings in their favor.
For those readers who are new to the area or too young to have been politically aware, irregularities in property tax appraisals from the auditor’s office were uncovered in the Eighties. The resulting scandal became known as “FOJ” or “Friends of Joe,” with then-Auditor DeCourcy providing lower property valuations — and saving lots of property taxes — for select county homeowners, mostly friends and political cronies. Dusty has always run on a watchdog platform and I never questioned the fact that he had cleaned up the joint.
Indeed, during the decade following Rhodes upset election, the Board initially took a more conservative stance on Revision decisions, the vast majority of the ones I checked decided against the complainant. But by 2003-2004 the attitude clearly changes and property valuations start to be chopped on the most expensive commercial properties in the Central Business District. While the property tax rate charged to commercial owners appears to be higher than that of residential owners (88.192116 mills versus 76.508466), in fact our wealthiest property owners have been given a permanent tax cut without the public being aware of it. This fact is confirmed by figures from Cincinnati Public Schools that show ten years ago residential and commercial property owners contributed 50%/50% to school funding. In 2012 that ratio had shifted to 60% from individuals and 40% from commercial properties.
I can’t explain it. I don’t understand it – and though I have asked and asked – city administration, council members, the treasurer of the Cincinnati Public schools, and politically savvy friends, the idiosyncrasies of property tax valuations seem to be one big mystery to everybody. Even Dusty himself has admitted defeat.
“We don’t think about the numbers anymore,” he said in an email to me on May 8, 2014. “All we try and do is apply the law and the respective ordinances of the local communities and lately it seems as though every one is different and more complicated than the preceding one.”
But one thing is very clear after studying the public records. There’s a whole new class of friends that is way bigger than one man’s favored acquaintances and the long-term cumulative affect on our city’s ability to pay its bills and invest in the future is being significantly hampered by tax cuts to our wealthiest property owners as middle class home owners strain household budgets to pick up the slack. Until Rhodes, Monzel, and Goering can explain WTF? Hamilton County Board of Revision, I’m going to focus on specific examples of valuation nonsense several times a week based on the County Auditor’s own records.