If there was any doubt that St. John property owners are committed to fighting the recent property revaluations, they were put to rest in early July.
V.I. District Court Judge Curtis Gomez hosted a status conference on the on-going suit against the V.I. Government on Wednesday, July 1, which drew a huge crowd of St. John residents. Led by members of the V.I. Unity Day Group, about 60 St. John property owners packed Gomez’s courtroom to hear the latest on the almost decade long battle over territorial property taxes.
“I would like to thank the property owners and residents of St. John for their overwhelming support,” said Myrtle Barry, a V.I Unity Day Group board member. “It is critical that the court see the support and weight of the V.I. Unity Day Group’s case since it has just been dragging along. We feel with the attendance at the conference hearing we truly created that impression.”
The July 1 status conference didn’t settle the suit between a number of property owners and the V.I. Government over how property taxes are collected or clear a path for collection of the taxes.
“We were hoping that the judge would do more than he did, but he did say that a hearing should be scheduled in the early fall,” said Attorney Jim Derr, who is representing a number of commercial property owners and the V.I. Unity Day group in the suit.
Several commercial property owners sued the V.I. Government in 1998 alleging the tax system was unconstitutional. A V.I. District Judge agreed with the property owners and slapped an injunction on the government in 2003 freezing property rates at 1998 levels until a fair system of assessing and collecting property taxes was attained.
Before the injunction can be lifted, the government was required to reassess all properties in the territory and have a functioning Board of Tax Review. A special master was assigned to oversee the process and sign off on the project’s completion.
While the V.I. Government contracted BearingPoint to conduct a territory-wide property revaluation — which was completed last year — many St. John residents still reject their new property values and allege they are being unfairly taxed.
Contending they had fulfilled their obligations, government officials issued property tax bills for 2006 at the new rates last August, before Gomez lifted the injunction.
On September 11, Gomez found the government in contempt of court and rescinded the tax bills. The government appealed to the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled in favor of the District Court in May, just after the government sent out 2006 property tax bills for a second time.
The 3rd Circuit Court of Appeal’s ruling invalidated those bills and they have been rescinded again — or will be as soon as Governor John deJongh signs the executive order, according to Derr.
“The government told the judge that Governor deJongh had rescinded the 2006 property tax bills and he had signed the executive order, but the attorney general needed to attest to that before it could be ordered,” said Derr. “That was more than a week ago and I still haven’t seen that executive order.”
Before the injunction can be lifted, a hearing on the special master’s report must be conducted and the Board of Tax Review must be a functioning body — neither of which has occurred, according to Derr.
“There has to be a hearing on the special master’s report which the judge is being totally non-committal about,” Derr said. “Our position is there hasn’t been a hearing and we keep saying that remains outstanding. “
As far as the Board of Tax Review, both parties agreed to a hearing sometime after August 15 to hear arguments on the matter, Derr explained.
“I have sent document production requests to the government to get information on how the Board is actually dealing with appeals,” said the attorney. “I imagine the judge will set a hearing for sometime in early September on the Board of Tax Review.”
For St. John, however, there are even more issues which must be addressed since many residents feel their new property assessments are incorrect, according to V.I. Unity Day Group board member Barry.
“What we have on the books in the Office of the Tax Assessor is flawed information,” Barry said. “Those revaluations need to be corrected. I would like to see the government go after BearingPoint to recoup some of its money since they did crummy work.”
“I would hope the government would have a contract so they would have some recourse,” said Barry. “They spent more than $6 million on this, so I hope there was some provision to guarantee BearingPoint’s work.”
St. John residents are not against paying property taxes, but only want to pay what is fair, Barry added.
“The property owners of St. John are happy to pay their property tax bills, but those bills must be lawful and not just whatever you feel like issuing to the public,” said Barry.
V.I. Unity Day Group members continue to collect money to cover legal costs in the suit against the government, Barry explained. Checks, made out to V.I. Unity Day Group, can be mailed to P.O Box 371, St. John, V.I. 00831. For more information about V.I. Unity Day Group, check out the website, viunitydaygroup.org.