More than 200 Love City residents packed a ballroom at the Westin Resort and Villas Thursday night, October 4, and shared their outrage with Lieutenant Governor Greg Francis about skyrocketing property values under the territory’s court-mandated revaluation.
“We are bearing strain from Bearing Point,” St. Johnian Wilma Marsh Monsanto told government officials, echoing how most people at the meeting felt about the company that conducted the property revaluation.
A 2003 U.S. District Court order required the government to conduct a territory-wide revaluation and set taxes according to market values. The Bearing Point company was contracted to do the revaluation and plans to have it finished by the end of the year, explained consultant Sally Powers.
Bearing Point used a model based on residential property sales between 2003 and 2005 to determine a $360 per square foot value on St. John as opposed to $93 on St. Thomas and $89 on St. Croix.
Legal Action Promised
Residents, some of whom threatened legal action against the government which could bring the entire tax revaluation to a halt, said the model is flawed.
“Your statistical sample is too small,” said resident Bill Morris. “The number of St. John sales is too small to be statistically significant. This will be part of the court case.”
“The people of St. John need to go to court and file a lawsuit,” said Lorelei Monsanto. “It will happen — you are touching all of our lives. If you treat us separately, let St. John keep all of its funds.”
Residents questioned why St. John is being asked to shoulder four times more taxes than the other islands in the territory, when there are far fewer government services on the island.
“Our taxes will be four times higher than the rest of the territory but we get less services,” said resident Lisa Durgin.
With more than half of the island occupied by the non-property tax paying V.I. National Park, market values on the island should not be measured the same as throughout the territory, according to Theodora Moorehead.
VINP Factor Cited
“The St. John situation is unique and critical,” said Moorehead. “What happened on St. John happened because of the National Park. Perhaps we need to consider a special park factor for here.”
“Our ancestors never thought of land as a commodity — it was for our children,” Moorehead continued. “Now land is a commodity and two-thirds of our island is taken up by the National Park who contributes nothing to the government. There must be some way to find a balance.”
Lower Tax Rate Is Forecast
The repeal of a 1936 federal law set the stage for the local legislature to set a new tax rate, which Governor John deJongh is proposing to set lower than the previous rate of .0075.
Hoping to off-set the burden of the revaluation on residential property owners, the administration is proposing different tax rates for four different categories of property .0036 for residential; .0065 for commercial; .0046 for land; .0110 for timeshare.
While each of those rates is lower than the current rate, average tax bills on St. John will still triple for land and double for commercial and residential property owners.
Tax Rates Are Not at Issue
Residents at the meeting, however, were not interested in hearing about the governor’s proposed rates.
“This new rate is a pacifier to the people of St. John which means nothing,” said Kharid Wallace. “What you are really doing is forcing us out of our houses and we won’t go without a fight. We’re at your mercy and something needs to be done.”
The governor is also proposing to increase several exemptions — ranging between $400 and $500 — and combine the elderly and senior exemptions into one higher category. These measures, however, don’t really amount to much, explained Elaine Penn.
“The exemption amounts are almost insulting,” said Penn. “Make them real. Make them significant enough to give some real relief.”
St. John residents would not mind paying 10 to even 30 percent higher taxes than before the revaluation, but just can’t pay what the government is asking, explained Mark Buchalter.
Looking for Equity
“Most people wouldn’t mind an increase in their taxes if it was something reasonable,” said Buchalter. “We simply can’t afford to pay what you are asking.”
There should be equity among all tax payers in the Virgin Islands, explained former Senator-at-Large Craig Barshinger.
“We don’t want to pay four, five or six times as much for the same house on St. Thomas,” said Barshinger. “If we live in about the same the house we want to pay about the same amount in taxes. We should all be shouldering about the same amount.”
The government was mandated to set the new tax system on real market values, explained V.I. Tax Assessor Roy Martin.
“It’s simply supply and demand,” said Martin. “In terms of market sales, they are much higher here than in St. Thomas or St. John. We didn’t create that market.”
The value notices mailed out in July are only a draft and sales from 2006 still must be factored into that figure, Martin added.
Still Need 2006 Numbers
“Please be patient,” said Martin. “All transactions from 2006 still have to be analyzed before the formal values are completed.”
While there might be additional measures proposed to further off-set the burden created by the tax revaluation, Martin did not share any specifics.
No matter what, the government should not force people out of their homes with exceedingly high taxes, explained Moorehead.
“If you are not careful, not too many of these faces will be here in a few years,” Moorehead said. “There is more than one way to skin a cat. No one should be compelled to sell land if they don’t want to.”
Residents with problems or questions regarding their proposed value notices who have not done so yet are still encouraged to contact the Tax Assessor’s Office before the end of October.