November/December 2020 Issue
Also in this issue: Can Employers Require Employees to Get a Covid-19 Vaccine? Possibly, but Legal and Policy Questions Remain. | Village of Plover Wins Tax Case; Dark Store Argument Fails | Municipalities Must Give New Unemployment Insurance Notice to Employees
City Cannot Appeal Reduction in Assessed Value by Board of Review
In a surprising decision, the Wisconsin Court of Appeals ruled that a city may not seek court review of an unfavorable ruling by the Board of Review. Effectively, when the Board of Review reduces the assessed value of a taxpayer’s property, thereby reducing the funds available to the municipality and shifting the tax burden to other taxpayers, the municipality has no right to ask for review of that determination by the courts. City of Waukesha v. City of Waukesha Board of Review, Appeal No. 2019AP1479 (2d District, November 20, 2020).
The Waukesha taxpayer was the Salem United Methodist Church. The city assessor had valued the property, which was not used for religious purposes, at $51,900. When the church accepted an offer to sell the property for $1 million, the assessor adjusted the value to $642,200. As set forth in sec. 70.47, Wis. Stats., the taxpayer appealed to the statutory Board of Review. Under the law, the Board holds a hearing and accepts or modifies the assessment of the city assessor.
Here, the Waukesha Board of Review ruled for the taxpayer, adjusting the assessed value to $108,000. The City filed for an appeal of the Board of Review action by commencing an action for certiorari, pursuant to sec. 70.47(13), which states:
(13) CERTIORARI. Except as provided in [WIS. STAT. §] 70.85, appeal from the determination of the board of review shall be by an action for certiorari commenced within 90 days after the taxpayer receives the notice under sub. (12).
Despite admitting in its ruling that nothing in the cited statute limits who may file the appeal, the court reasoned that, since only the taxpayer was entitled to receive notice of the decision, only the taxpayer could appeal the ruling. In so doing, the court found that sec. 70.47(11), Wis. Stats., did not give the city the right to appeal, even though that section states that “In all proceedings before the board the taxation district shall be a party in interest to secure or sustain an equitable assessment of all the property in the taxation district.” The court reasoned that the taxation district – the city – might be a party in interest before the Board of Review, but that did not give the city the right to appeal. The court also relied upon the fact that the Board of Review was appointed by the Waukesha mayor and confirmed by the common council, apparently viewing those facts as the only legal power that Waukesha had to affect the assessment.
The ruling raises many concerns. First, it is unusual for a court to find that a local body is the final arbiter of the exercise of its powers; the general rule is that any local decision must be reviewable. Second, the inability to appeal an unfavorable ruling means that the city will collect less tax revenue and that it must cover its costs by increasing taxes to other taxpayers. Yet the city cannot go to court to carry out its statutory obligation to “secure or sustain an equitable assessment.”
Waukesha is considering whether to ask for review by the Wisconsin Supreme Court.
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