V.I. Unity Day Group members filed a temporary restraining order early this month against the territorial government to halt the collection of 2013 property tax bills on St. John.
The group is waiting to hear from V.I. Superior Court on the filing as it maintains that the values of many properties on St. John are unfairly elevated.
“The property values that were issued in the 2013 property tax bills are alarming,” said Myrtle Barry, V.I. Unity Day Group’s Property Tax Committee chairperson. “We have seen property values rise from 120 percent up to 3,600 percent. These values exceed what the property owners can get at a fair market value for their property.”
Barry has been working on the St. John property tax issue since the first wave of court-ordered revaluations were issued in 2006. While V.I. Unity Day Group’s case was eventually dismissed by Judge Curtis Gomez, the 2006 property tax bills were rescinded.
The 2013 bills reflect the new reevaluations, which are also flawed, Barry explained.
“Some of these bills are worse than the 2006 bills which were rescinded,” said Barry. “We were in this same mess in 2006. You would think by now they would get their act together.”
“The revaluations have to be done correctly,” she said.
The St. John property tax bills are oppressing the island’s people, according to Barry.
“They are using St. John as a cash cow and in essence they are oppressing the property owners of the Virgin Islands, primarily on St. John,” she said. “They are inflicting excessive values and then thereby also inflicting excessive taxes on our properties. Also, this is a very technical case that makes it hard for property owners to fight on their own.”
“We could not do this without an attorney and expert witnesses and that’s not something a lot of property owners can do on their own,” Barry said.
The underlying issue is that the lack of a International Association of Assessing Officers-certified official in the V.I. Tax Assessors Office, according to Barry.
“The blatant problem is that the Tax Assessor and no one in the office is IAAO certified,” she said. “That is the core of the problem.”
The V.I. government also did not issue impact notices as required by IAAO standards, Barry added.
“They didn’t even give us the courtesy of sending us impact notices,” said the Unity Day Group chairperson. “Behind the scenes, the legislature put in place new legislation that says they can issue a bill and that bill will function as an impact notice which is illegal. That is contrary to IAAO standards and according to Act 6991, we are under the IAAO standards for mass appraisal assessments.”
Barry herself has been stung by the spike in property taxes, she explained.
“We can use me as an example,” she said. “Because of the injury I sustained with my 2013 property tax bill, which is paid by the bank, my mortgage is going up to the tune of $200 per month. So you can see the rippling effect that will have on people who have mortgages.”
As of early December, a total of 505 taxpayers on St. John — along with 458 taxpayers on the much larger island of St. Thomas and 402 on the even larger island of St. Croix — asked for informal appeals of their property assessments, according to information from Lieutenant Governor Gregory Francis’ office.
Someone from the Tax Assessor’s Office is supposed to visit each property which files an appeal, however, the appeals process is also flawed, according to Barry.
“The formal appeals process offers zero relief,” she said. “The Tax Assessor and the Board of Tax Review are in agreement. There is no review.”
“The court is our only relief right now in terms of some form of due process,” Barry said.
While the V.I. Unity Day Group continues to fight for fair St. John property valuations, the group is not against property taxes, Barry added.
“We pay our taxes and I want to make it absolutely clear that we want property owners to pay their property taxes,” she said. “But we want to them to pay what is fair and what is right and what is on our bills is not fair and is not right.”
The V.I. Unity Day Group chairperson has been fighting the government about property taxes for at least the past eight years and she’s not about to give up now.
“I know this is wrong and because it’s wrong, we have to correct it,” said Barry. “I love the Virgin Islands, I was born and raised here and I don’t plan on moving to go anywhere else. We are fighting this because it’s wrong.”
“We are standing up for our rights and for what is right,” Barry said.
V.I. Unity Day Group continues accepting donations for the legal battle to fight the 2013 property taxes. Checks can me mailed to P.O. Box 371, St. John, VI, 00830.