Government’s Free Pass to Trespass

Some homeowners find property assessor guidelines objectionable

Most people think of trespassing as the crime of going on someone’s property without permission. Yet, government views trespassing differently, particularly when it involves tax assessments. Consider this phone exchange with a city official on what would happen if an assessor came to your house and you weren’t home:

“The assessor would get the information they need and leave a card,” said Linda Gosselin, Assessor, city of Livonia.

“Would that include walking around the property, to the backyard?”

“They would review the property,” she said.

“Does that include walking around the property?”

“I think I answered your question,” said Gosselin.

In Michigan, tax assessors claim they must walk on property to get accurate tax rolls. But there are examples of tax assessors pushing the limits of civil liberties, walking on property when no one is home or even demanding to come inside a home.

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The Michigan State Tax Commission guides assessors with rules that have been upheld in court.

If you ask an assessor to leave your property, they must honor that. Assessors are not to peer into your windows. If you say no to an inspection, they are not allowed to penalize you by jacking up your assessment. An advisory issued in 2014 states that all assessments must be based on supporting evidence.

The rules, however, don’t take into account all scenarios. Take the example of Jeff Stout of Cannon Township in Kent County. Not only did he post a “No Trespassing” sign on his property, he called his township to say he did not want the tax assessor walking on his property. Months later, he discovered pictures of his backyard on the township’s website.

Municipalities defend these actions by stating that Michigan law requires such documentation to be part of the public record and that making those records available in a broad way is a good thing.

“Appraisers, realtors, real estate attorneys, developers, and journalists benefit from having public tax assessment information readily available on the Internet. It also allows citizens assurance that property taxes are being assessed equally, consistently and fairly. And it makes government more efficient by reducing staffing demands to fulfill requests for public information,” said Cannon Township Attorney Jim Scales.

It’s one thing to grant access for measurements and to establish a public record. It’s another to broadcast satellite images of your home or property. In some of the photos, furnishings are visible as well as windows and cars.

Tax assessors can push the limits of their authority in other ways. As a member of the Mackinac Center’s Board of Scholars, Ted Bolema has a full appreciation for the importance of property rights but he also happens to be an attorney. Soon after his assessment case was placed on the docket of the Michigan Tax Tribunal, his township sent him a letter “requesting” an appointment to review the inside and outside of his house. Bolema declined.

“The request was on Meridian Township letterhead and the language in the letter seemed to imply that compliance was required by the Tax Tribunal. My concern is that nonattorneys receiving such letters from a government office might not realize this was a request for information from an agent of an opposing party, two months before a scheduled court hearing, and could easily believe this was a requirement from the Tax Tribunal as part of the appeals process,” said Bolema.

Bolema lost his case at the Tribunal and Jeff Stout’s appraisal went up after he complained publicly about the Internet pictures. There may be not enough information to determine if that was more than coincidence, but it makes taxpayers wonder who government is really working for.

Why can’t assessors find ways to protect privacy if they feel a need to post photos on the Internet? Blacking out windows, furnishings and cars would be a good start. Better, why not find a less costly and cumbersome way to assess the value of property? Some have argued that government needs to make the assessment process more understandable, like basing assessments strictly on square footage and “comps,” what the real estate market uses to determine home values. Real market data comes along more rapidly than many people realize. According to the most recent data from the National Association of Realtors, 58 percent of owners sell their home within 10 years.

By simplifying the assessment process and restricting the use of real estate photos on the Internet, government could not only save money but also win more goodwill with the public.

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