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Published: Friday, 7/24/2009

Cuts likely to slow tax-appeal cases

BY MARK NIQUETTE
COLUMBUS DISPATCH

COLUMBUS - Homeowners and businesses challenging the value of their property as a way to lower their tax bills - or schools seeking to increase their revenue - might have to wait years for the state to resolve their case, thanks to budget cuts.

That's because, despite an increase in appeals in the recession, the Ohio Board of Tax Appeals might have to lay off up to half of its staff in response to a cut in state funding of more than 40 percent.

"Cases may be pending here for multiple years, and I mean multiple years," board Chairman Pamela Margulies said yesterday.

It's just one of myriad ways Ohioans will be affected by the $2.5 billion in cuts as part of the two-year, $50.5 billion budget approved last week. Even cuts to little-known state entities can have a big impact on the public.

In response to the recession and plunging property values, an increasing number of property owners are filing tax appeals with their county boards of revisions, arguing that their property no longer is worth the amount used to calculate their taxes.

On the other side, school districts also are asking for recalculations as a way to increase valuations and thus tax revenue.

In Franklin County, 6,700 cases were filed in the 12 months through March 31; that's more than double the 3,300 in the previous year.

If property owners don't agree with their county board's decision, they can appeal to the courts, but most file with the Board of Tax Appeals. The average case previously took about 15 months to resolve at the state level, Ms. Margulies said.

But she said a staff of 30 lawyers and administrative workers when she joined the board in 2001 has dwindled to 16, and this week the board started the process to lay off up to half of those who remain if necessary.

The board's funding for the next two years was cut by $1.7 million from the $4 million in the previous budget, which ended June 30. That's a cut of 43 percent.

At the same time, the number of appeals filed with the board this year is up by 20 percent from last year, and it has a backlog of about 3,600 cases, Ms. Margulies said.

She said it's not clear how many workers might lose jobs, and she hopes additional funding can be found to spare them, especially if property owners complain to state officials about the delay in their cases.

Otherwise, "cases will just sit there, and we'll get to them as we can," she said.

Franklin County Auditor Joseph Testa said it's not fair for property owners to have to wait years to resolve their cases, especially if it means a big change in their tax bill as a result. "It's obviously pretty exasperating for a property owner or a school who wants a final determination," he said.

State officials have said they made difficult funding decisions based on plummeting revenue in the recession.



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