Property tax issue begins to heat up
By By Kerry Whipple-Bean
Escambia County won't switch to annual tax appraisals until next year, but the issue has been much talked about in local as well as statewide races.
The Alabama Department of Revenue began phasing in annual tax appraisals – starting with the most populous counties – shortly after Riley's term began.
Whether they are constitutionally mandated or not is subject to debate in the election. The Riley administration has interpreted the result of a federal lawsuit to say that annual appraisals are a matter of state law.
Riley, who was in Brewton last week on a campaign trip, said the annual appraisals are the law – even if he doesn't agree with them.
"We introduced three different pieces of legislation to take it back to four years," Riley said. "They were all defeated. As long as I'm governor, I am not going to pick and choose what laws we follow."
Riley said reappraisals used to happen every five years, but Gov. Fob James moved them to four years.
Lt. Gov. Lucy Baxley, Riley's Democratic opponent, has accused Riley in campaign ads of instituting a "back-door tax" through the annual appraisals.
Other Democrats have said they oppose the new appraisal method as well.
Democratic state Rep. F.P. "Skippy" White said he proposed a bill earlier this year to make the tax appraisals every four years in Escambia County, but the bill did not pass.
"We are going to, as a party, make it every four years and override it next year," White told fellow Democrats at a party meeting earlier this month.
White's legislation was one of many unsuccessful bills aimed at returning the tax appraisals to four years for individual counties. It's unclear if they would have been successful constitutionally.
White's opponent, Republican Alan Baker, said most of the people he has talked to favor the every-four-years route, although he noted that annual tax appraisals show smaller increases rather than the sticker shock of appraisals spaced further apart.
"I'm there to represent the voice of the people," Baker said.
State Senate candidate John McMillan, a Republican, said he would favor a compromise – tax appraisals every two years.
"That's one of those issues you can be on either side of," said McMillan, who faces Democratic state Sen. Pat Lindsey in the November election. "I think every other year is the answer."
And depending on interpretation, the Alabama Code could support that compromise. It reads: "The appraisal of property shall be commenced and completed for each county at the earliest dates consistent with good business and sound appraisal practices, but in any event completed not later than two years from Jan. 19, 1972."
Before the state change, Montgomery County switched to annual appraisals voluntarily, and Baldwin County had switched to tax appraisals every two years.
Where the money goes
Riley said annual appraisals do not benefit the state – at least not as much as local governments and school systems.
"The reason for the (state budget) surplus is not the property tax rate," he said. "It doesn't help the state at all."
In the most recent assessment for Escambia County – the last that would be every four years unless legislation is passed to change it – $663,745 is designated for the state general fund, $861,595 for the state school fund and $265,498 for the state soldier fund. Meanwhile, $1.14 million is designated for the county general fund and $6.5 million for schools in Escambia County and Brewton.