Courier-Journal Letter to the Editor

Study found PVA assessments fair, equitable

The debate over fairness of property assessments has become a red hot topic in Louisville. The yelling, screaming and threats at town meetings and on the internet is filled more with fiction than fact. The media has failed us by promoting a story of tax unfairness in rich white neighborhoods; they focus on the exception and not the rule.

Absent from the local debate has been objective analysis of whether government property assessors are fair and equitable. Outside of the PVA nobody is doing the math except for the University of Louisville Center for Sustainable Urban Neighborhoods.

Demands that we toss out the science of modern property appraisal systems are foolish and illegal. Nobody wants to go back to the old corrupt, unequal and unfair practices of yesterday where the rich and powerful rigged the system to their own advantage and pushed higher taxes on the powerless, the poor and middle class.

The Jefferson County PVA’s Residential Department uses an assessment program that relies heavily on trained professionals to review approximately 32,000 transfers of residential properties each year to search for valid sales. These sales determine the value of characteristics such as age, location, and additions to the properties, which are then applied to similar nearby properties using a computer-assisted mass appraisal system.

This system uses the cost-approach, which is adjusted for each neighborhood using data from valid sales excluding foreclosures. The primary tool for the PVA analysis of mass appraisals is the ratio study, conducted annually. The allowable range for assessment/sales ratios is between 90 and 110 percent, as required by the Kentucky Department of Revenue. This is higher than the Kentucky statute’s requirement that all assessments be 80 percent of market prices. If the state finds that a local PVA is outside this range, they are removed from office and face penalties.

Modern technology is a further key to equitable and accurate assessments. While assessors cannot enter a house and can only assess the property from the outside, “Pictometry” technology allows multiple views of property without a site visit by PVA staff. This makes property assessment more cost-efficient, more of a science and less of a political consideration.

In addition, Louisville conducts a transparent and public process, where residents can obtain information about the values of their home and their neighbors’ homes and have the opportunity to challenge assessments via a citizen review board. Only a small percentage of homeowners actually challenge these assessments and adjustments are made.

Louisville is one of the few cities where scholars can evaluate the performance and quality of the PVA office. In our Louisville case study, the current elected Property Valuation Administrator, Tony Lindauer, gave the authors first-time access to the assessment database — it’s also now available for free at the public library or the PVA website.

The results of our scientific study using regression analysis (state of the art statistical analysis) were published recently in the top-rated scholarly journal, American Review of Public Administration, and reviewed by leading experts in the field of property tax assessment. The chances of our research findings being wrong is less than 5%. The same data has been used in 10 other research articles to show what factors hurt or help a neighborhoods growth or demise.

We found that median neighborhood values, calculated from data provided by Louisville’s PVA, compares favorably with median values/prices calculated from MLS sales and U.S. Census data. The ratio analysis found that the average assess-to-sale ratio is approximately 85 percent, which follows the legal guidelines of conducting fair assessments in Kentucky.

If sold, a residential property in Louisville is promptly reassessed for the next year to the value for which the home was sold. Unlike many other cities (Philadelphia, New Orleans), we found that race and income of neighborhoods did not influence property valuation in Louisville. This might be why Jefferson County PVA has been acclaimed as a national model for best practices.

People in the Highlands who invested in this classic gentrifying neighborhood took the risk and are being rewarded with skyrocketing property values that have doubled and even tripled in the past 10 years; they should be thrilled that they have a secure nest egg for retirement. Housing prices will continue to skyrocket because there is a big demand for a green neighborhood—calm two-way streets, safety in riding bikes, walkable neighborhoods, community gardens, low crime, tree-lined streets, close to downtown, no brownfields, and sense of community. This is the secret sauce for renewing neighborhoods that were once down-and-out slums.

Over time the prices of everything including government services go up. It is only fair that home assessments reflect their true value: taxes are needed to provide adequate services and revenue must be raised. Those with the apparent ability to pay should pay their fair share of the tax burden.

Higher taxes? It’s a small price to pay for getting a secure financial future. More people will stay longer in the Highlands than those neighborhoods undergoing disinvestment. The higher assessment rates will also allow homeowners the proof they need to tell banks to refinance their current mortgages by cutting interest rates in half from say 6 percent to 3 percent. Try getting a 3 percent loan in west Louisville!

What’s worse than gentrification and higher taxes? No gentrification! The real outrage should be coming from those who live in select downtown neighborhoods who see their homes steadily eroding in value and in some cases lose their entire nest egg. It is taxes that provide the infrastructure for these neighborhoods — lose your housing value, lose your neighborhood.

John Gilderbloom is Director of the Center for Sustainable Neighborhoods and professor of public administration at the University of Louisville. He has written 50 articles on community development, housing and transportation mostly about Louisville.