Property Tax Revaluation Workshop Draws Nervous Crowd

St. John Administrator Leona Smith, center, listens to citizens’ concerns at a recent CBCC-sponsored tax workshop. St. John Tradewinds News Photo by Jaime Elliott

The shockingly high property values mailed out recently are another example of the island’s lack of a political voice, according to residents who attended a Coral Bay Community Council-hosted property revaluation workshop on Monday evening, August 13, at Donkey Diner.

Despite being part of the St. Thomas/St. John district, Love City property values were calculated on a $360 per square foot base as opposed to the $93 per square foot upon which the property values of St. Thomas were based, CBCC president Sharon Coldren explained.
St. Croix property values were based on $89 per square foot.

“A Real Injustice”
“It’s a real injustice,” said St. John Administrator Leona Smith about the disparity.
The square foot values were based upon real estate sales between 2003 and 2005, most of which were off-island rental villas, according to Coldren.

“This is what the sales market information said, but St. John is a much smaller market than the other two islands and the bulk of sales were off-island businesses,” Coldren said. “Those sales were very much the high end of the market. These were dreams being sold, not homes, which skewed what is going on with people’s values.”

Even though there were high-end sales on St. Thomas and St. Croix, they were averaged in with regular home sales, leveling the square foot values, Coldren added.

“Wouldn’t it make sense for St. John sales to be averaged with St. Thomas sales because it’s the same tax district,” said Coldren.

Inflated Land Values
Square foot values for vacant land were disproportionately high for St. John compared to the two other main islands as well. Love City values were calculated from a $25 per square foot base, as opposed to $7 per square foot for St. Thomas and $3 per square foot for St. Croix.

About 14 people turned out for the tax workshop, which CBCC members hoped would address panic and confusion surrounding the government mandated territory-wide property revaluations.

In addition to the inflated square foot base values, the revaluation method used by government contractor BearingPoint included a number of vague adjustments. Subjective descriptions of home features, neighborhoods, views and even the state of roads, contributed to final value calculation, Coldren explained.

“If the model is garbage and you’re putting garbage into the model, you’re going to get garbage out of it,” said Coldren. “We have to decide if this makes sense.”

While it seems clear that the model used to determine St. John property values should be altered, the situation is just another example of Love City not having political representation, according to Bonny Corbeil.

“Here goes St. John being royally screwed one more time,” Corbeil said. “This whole thing points to another example of us not having a voice for our problems or solutions.”

Future Class Action Suit?
A class action law suit against the government, while premature, seems inevitable, according to several residents at the meeting, and Administrator Smith agreed.

“There will be a class action law suit, that seems certain,” Smith said. “It’s too early now, but it will certainly happen.”

In the meantime, residents are urged to contest their property values and share information about the revaluation process with neighbors. CBCC members are also planning to write an open letter of concern to Lt. Gov. Gregory Francis about the issue.

“This is a process and this is just the beginning,” said Coldren. “We will be revisiting this issue in the future, but this is a good start right now.”

Federally-mandated Project
The territory-wide property revaluations were mandated by a 2003 federal court order which required the V.I. government to set tax assessments on actual values. The recent repeal of a 1936 federal law allows the local government to set its own tax rates, an issue which the V.I. Legislature is expected to take up sometime this year.

Residents can contest their property values by either calling the Lieutenant Governor’s office at 776-2859 or stopping by the St. John Tax Assessor’s office on Tuesdays and Thursdays between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. at the Cruz Bay Battery.