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Tax law change jeered, cheered in Berkeley Co.

January 24, 2006|by ROBERT SNYDER

martinsburg@herald-mail.com

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - Despite its easy passage by one house of the state Legislature last week, Berkeley County officials say the overturning of a law that changed how properties are taxed will significantly affect local revenue levels down the road.

Berkeley County Administrator Deborah Hammond said last week's vote by the House of Delegates to repeal legislation passed in 2003 that taxed second homes under the county's rental property rate could mean a reduction in revenue from the county's coffers.

"If (the assessor) has to go back and reassess those properties at a different class, then there's going to be less money coming to the county as well as to the board of education," Hammond said Monday.

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While Hammond did not say how the change would impact Berkeley County, she cited projections sent last week by the County Commissioners' Association of West Virginia that indicated Pocahontas County stands to lose $180,000 in property taxes and $260,000 in state school funding as a result of the law's repeal.

The 2003 law, which was passed to tighten the rules on homestead exemptions, limited to one the number of homes that could be classified as primary residences. The rule, which would have gone into effect this fiscal year, disallowed the classification of second homes, cabins and hunting lodges as Class II properties, doubling the rate at which these properties would be taxed.

Late last year, Berkeley County Assessor Preston Gooden sought to put the new law to good use by taxing homes at a Class III rate where owners had failed to register their vehicles in West Virginia to avoid the state's 5 percent personal property tax.

The levy rate for Class II properties in Berkeley County is 23.28 cents per $100 of assessed value. That amount is half the rate of Class III properties, which are taxed at 46.56 cents per $100.

Still, Gooden described himself as an opponent of the 2003 law, calling it unfair to tax residences at a commercial rate that are not rented, but are used as homes by owners' older relatives or children.

"I think if anyone has a second home and is renting it out, then they should pay the rental rate, but if it's grandma living there then it should be taxed residential," Gooden said.

State Sen. John Unger said the law also disproportionately taxes out-of-state residents who spend only weekends and vacations in West Virginia, but utilize little services.

"The question that comes down is, is it fair?" said Unger, D-Berkeley/Jefferson. "I think you need to look at it as a fairness issue rather than just as a potential revenue loss."

But Gooden said purchase of properties at market values by out-of-state residents acts to artificially inflate their values and frequently drives up the property assessments for people who do live in-state year round. Gooden said he hopes the bill the Senate considers will contain an exception for part-time residents.

Unger said the Senate might take up the bill as early as next week.

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