Board spars with commissioner over land-use tax

WOODSTOCK – Shenandoah County Commissioner of the Revenue Kathy Black stood her ground last week as some supervisors wanted her to rescind a penalty against a landowner.

The Board of Supervisors invited Black to a work session Thursday to discuss rollback taxes – the penalty paid by a property owner who takes land out of a special taxation program.

However, Vice Chairman Richard Walker, District 4 Supervisor Cindy Bailey and District 5 Supervisor Marsha Shruntz used the time to question Black’s decision to penalize a landowner as a result of a mistake made decades ago. Bailey and Walker took issue with the change-in-use stipulation in the program that allows the commissioner of the revenue to charge the property owner for five years of taxes saved by putting the acres in land use and reducing the assessed value.

Black repeatedly warned the three supervisors that the board lacked any authority over her taxation decisions and told members she would not discuss specific cases. Her warning did not stop Bailey from divulging information about the landowner’s situation as the supervisor tried more than once to elicit comments from Black.

“The Board of Supervisors is overstepping their authority by – “ Black said before Bailey interrupted.

“By asking questions we’re overstepping our authority?” Bailey said.

The commissioner told the supervisors that the property owner can appeal her decision to the circuit court. If a judge ruled in the property owner’s favor, Black said she would follow the court’s order and make an adjustment to the taxpayer’s account.

“I question whether or not the Board of Supervisors would call the sheriff into the meeting to discuss a warrant that he’s issued,” Black said. “I question whether the Board of Supervisors would call the commonwealth’s attorney into this meeting and ask her if she had the authority to pursue a prosecution. I don’t think that would happen.

“The commissioner of revenue’s office is no different than the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office or the Sheriff’s Office,” Black added.

Walker tried to refute Black’s allegation but the commissioner snapped back.

On several occasions in the discussion Walker and Bailey said the program serves to protect the landowner. Black corrected the supervisors by pointing out that the program protects the land itself, not the owner, from future development.

“You all do not agree that stopped farming is a change in use and I understand that you don’t agree with it but it’s not your decision; it’s mine,” Black said.

Any landowner can appeal the commissioner’s determination of a change in use, Black told the board more than once.

“The proper channel is for them to appeal in a court of law,” Black said. “The Board of Supervisors do not have the authority to take a rollback back and it’s the authority of the commissioner of revenue to do that. The rollbacks, when they’re issued, are pretty much a done deal. To my 19 years of experience, to taking the courses and interacting with other commissioners of the revenue, I am absolutely interpreting the law the way almost every other commissioner of the revenue does it.”

Bailey interjected by saying that some commissioners can use their discretion to make decisions. Black also has that ability, Bailey said.

Black criticized the supervisors who questioned her decision on the land-use matter. Black added that supervisors would not question the commonwealth’s attorney or the sheriff for pursuing a case.

A property owner with land in the program must also meet requirements for the income collected from the use of the acres, Black noted. Failure to meet the qualification standards in the program triggers the rollback tax levy, Black explained. Walker repeatedly cited a state attorney general’s opinion from the 1990s that addresses change in use. Black said other opinions could say the opposite and noted that the opinion Walker cited references a specific case.

Walker raised concerns about a farmer’s ability to meet the program’s production quotas during a drought. The program allows a property owner some leeway for meeting the qualification standards during a drought, Black said. The commissioner decides whether or not to grant the leeway, she added.

Bailey tried to steer the discussion to the specific landowner’s grievance though Black said she would not talk about the case. Bailey explained that in this instance a family member inherited property that included a house sitting on eight acres in land-use. However, a survey found that the property actually covered less than 5 acres. The land no longer qualified for the program because the property fell under the required acreage, Bailey said. The property had been entered into the land-use program under the assumption that it qualified. The erroneous size remained listed in the record books.

“But to charge them five years back taxes, that’s wrong, and then I question the assessors that are going out and they didn’t notice this all this time,” Bailey said. “This is where the discretion comes in. It comes down to change in use like what we talked about and the fact that a mistake was made. Everybody was working off the same assumption. But yet who’s penalized? The taxpayer’s penalized when a mistake is made.”