|VERMONT SECRETARY OF STATE - Jim Condos|
|State of Vermont
Office of the
Secretary of State
Volume 1 Number 3
A Voice from the
FAIRNESS AS AN OPERATING PRINCIPLE
Do you think that fairness is something were born with? I asked a dozen people that question last week. People with small children told me theyre sure it isnt. Most said they had to think about it.
If we didnt receive fairness genetically, we were taught it at an early age. When we took more than our share of dessert at the dinner table growing up, we heard about the principle. It was an integral part of school and sports, where the lessons of waiting your turn, sharing with others, and respecting their rights were rules. The principle is illustrated daily at a stop light or a grocery check-out.
Treating everybody the same way. Giving everybody the same treatment. Letting everybody have a fair share of the benefits and burdens. Its so simple and so perfect, and so basic to the life of a democracy. Its the principle behind voting, road maintenance, the public library, and taxation.
Well, not quite. The rich are taxed more than the poor. The young are not entitled to vote. There are some books at the library that dont circulate.
The principle, nevertheless, remains the same. People in the same condition are treated equally. Nobody, and we mean nobody, gets to take those books home overnight. Zoning restrictions apply to every landowner. All homes worth $100,000 are appraised at the same value on the grand list.
Although all public officials are required by law to administer the principle of fairness in all that they do, one office stands out as the apostle of it and thats the town lister. How do we know what property is fairly worth? We look to the listers first.
April 1 is the day that listers use as the target date for all appraisals of real and personal property. It was called Tax Day in earlier times. A half-built house, for instance, is appraised in the amount of completion as of April 1. No town gets its grand list done that day; in fact, the hard work of putting the grand list together is already well under way in most towns by April 1.
Last month the Supreme Court put a new twist on that question by ruling that the Spirit of Ethan Allen, the Lake Champlain tour boat, should be taxed by Burlington, where it operates during the season, rather than Shelburne, where it was docked for the winter, even though it was in Shelburne on April 1. (This pronouncement may inadvertently help town highways: now there wont be such a need to move large equipment out of town by April 1, when roads are bad.)
A lister is a modern-day Diogenes. Diogenes used to go about in broad daylight with a lantern, searching for an honest man. Listers search every day for an honest value. Theirs is a thankless task of compiling information and exercising judgment, reviewing property transfers, upgrading the list due to improvements (from zoning permits), and taking abuse for the work theyve done.
This abuse comes when their work is challenged, when somebody concludes there has been an unfair assessment. Is there any other officer who is so naturally in harms way as a lister? Well, zoning administrator and delinquent tax collector come to mind, but lets talk about listers. What makes their jobs so vulnerable is the personal nature of real property. "It belongs to me, I know its value, and thats too much." The law allows every homeowner to testify in court about its value, and there is always a professional appraiser with a better idea of value ready to testify next.
The hard questions of appraisal involve a search for value, and value is often elusive. We want it to be a scientific search, but any conclusion that relies so heavily on many variables is bound to sow seeds of distrust among the taxpayers.
Listers have a single purpose, and they cannot be put off from their duty. When Diogenes met Alexander the Great, Alexander offered him anything he could name as a gift. Diogenes asked him to stand out of his light. A lister would do that.
It may be that listers, more than the rest of us, are imprinted with fairness from birth. But then, isnt that the theme of every taxpayer at grievance and tax appeal? The whole fight between listers and taxpayers over fair market value revolves around being fair to the individual and fair to the town as a whole.
In that light, lets make April this year Fairness month, and remember to thank our tireless listers for their hard work, at the beginning of their busiest season. Their prize? Immunity from April Fools jokes. Give them a break this time. It wouldnt be fair.
Vermont Secretary of State
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