How to fight a property tax increase in Milwaukee
Paying taxes can be a stressful event. This is especially true if the tax amount in question is significantly higher than expected. Property taxes in Wisconsin are usually determined by multiplying the assessed value of a home by the property tax percentage with a certain minimum amount. Most increases in property tax amounts are due to increases in the assessed value of the property or an over-assessment based on inaccurate data. This means that the best legal strategy for opposing the tax is to oppose the assessed value of the property and to ensure that all deductions were included.
The assessment process and hierarchy
All municipalities use a process of property value assessment. It is important to go in with a good understanding of this process and its variables. The assessment can be calculated in a variety of ways, and it is usually the work of a single local assessment official. The exact strategy the official uses can vary, but it follows a strict hierarchy of importance.
The official will first look at any recent sales of the actual property. This is a quick, easy, and accurate way to provide assessment, but it only works if the property was recently bought or sold. Inherited properties may have been off the market for decades, so this approach will not work.
The second tier of the hierarchy is to look at recent sales of similar properties in the area. Things start to get muddled at the second tier. While assessors are trained to identify the various attributes that would make properties comparable to one another, there is still a lot of gray area and potential for human error. For the most part, the assessor will focus on raw numbers that are easily obtained, such as the number of bedrooms and bathrooms, the total square footage of the home, the number of additional buildings such as a garage or shed, and the total acreage of the lot.
The third tier of the hierarchy covers any data or investigation that is not covered by the previous tiers. Assessors will only proceed to this level if they have no other option. The assessor will probably need to physically visit the house and make a detailed inspection at the third level.
It is important to note that as the assessor is forced to go up in the assessment hierarchy, the possibility that important factors will be overlooked increases dramatically. This is why understanding the basis for the original assessment is important.
The appeal process
Objecting to a property’s assessed value follows an appeal process. While a lawyer may be helpful at the uppermost levels of the process, the basic levels generally do not require legal counsel or expertise. That said, a homeowner wishing to go through with the process is advised to come well prepared with facts and evidence. They will be arguing against the assessor and other municipal officials and will need to be prepared to convince them.
Step 1: Informal meeting with assessor
The first step in the appeal process is to visit the assessor directly and request an informal meeting. This gives the homeowner the opportunity to discuss why the home was valued as it was. They can examine the assessor's reasoning and present their arguments and evidence to the contrary. If strong evidence is presented, or if the homeowner is able to reveal an important variable the assessor missed, then the process can end on the first step. The assessor will voluntarily reassess at a more accurate value, and the tax will be recalculated.
Step 2: Board of assessors and board of review
If the homeowner is unable to convince the assessor at the informal meeting, then they can choose to escalate the process to a formal hearing. Some municipalities like major cities have an intermediary step called the Board of Assessors. This board brings the homeowner’s evidence before a group of assessors who make a judgment on the accuracy of the assessment. Usually, a homeowner does not argue before this board.
For most municipalities, the Board of Review is the next stop. This functions much more like a formal hearing or court case. It is, however, not a true legal environment. Lawyers are unlikely to be involved, and the board is likely made up of officials with no legal background. The homeowner should still come well prepared to present their case and evidence and make a strong argument.
Step 3: Further appeals
If the Board of Review also denies a change in assessment, then the homeowner may appeal further under certain Wisconsin statutes, explained in detail in this legal article. These appeals may require more extensive paperwork and full court hearings. A homeowner may wish to seek legal representation at this level of the process.
While challenging the government’s tax system may seem like a David and Goliath scenario, the fact holds that property owners have a high success rate when it comes to arguing their assessment cases. The National Taxpayer’s Union estimates that up to 40 percent of cases are successful. It is important to come prepared with solid facts and an understanding of the process.