Assessors should be allowed to testify in court

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When a property owner appeals the county’s valuation of a property and the owner and the county assessor cannot come to an agreement as to the appropriate value for the property, the dispute is often turned over to the court system. 


The Minnesota Department of Revenue has proposed a modest clarification to state law designed to make the presentation of evidence in regard to court valuation appeals conform to the intent of the legislature and to common sense. Unfortunately, what should be a slam-dunk at the legislature has become mired in unnecessary controversy.


First, some background. Historically, assessors who work for counties and other assessing jurisdictions have been allowed to testify and present appraisal information in court cases where the assessor’s valuation of a property is being contested. However, in late 2009 a tax court ruled that assessors could no longer testify based on a 1993 law.  There seems to be universal agreement that the statute cited in the court ruling was not designed to prohibit all assessor testimony, but merely prevent assessors from moonlighting on private appraisals for fee on properties within their jurisdiction.


Recently the House and Senate Tax Committees considered a statutory change proposed by the Minnesota Department of Revenue that would restore the ability of assessors to present information in court.  A handful of Tax Committee members in both the House and Senate, under the mistaken impression that they were promoting tax justice, argued that if a property owner is required to hire an outside appraiser to contest their valuation in court, the assessing jurisdiction should have to do the same.


What this argument ignores is the fact that counties and other assessing jurisdiction are already hiring experts on property valuation who are licensed, thoroughly trained, held to high ethical standards, and authorized by state law to function as property appraisers.  They’re called “assessors.”  To forbid assessors from testifying in court regarding the rationale for the valuation they assigned to a property is nonsensical and was never the intent of state lawmakers.


During a time when local government budgets are already severely pinched, it makes no sense to impose a new cost on counties and other assessing jurisdictions by requiring them to hire outside appraisers to handle court cases when they already have qualified assessors on staff.  The legislature should side with frugality and common sense by reestablishing the ability of assessors to testify in court.