Friday, June 23, 2017

I fought the law. Will the law win?


“Dang it! I forgot my notebook,” I thought. As a writer, one must always take notes. Stories surround us. As a humorist, I constantly scan my immediate world for ideas and laughter in ordinary places. Yesterday, I hit the jackpot, but, dang it, forgot my notebook. I was in the “old courthouse” downtown Knoxville, Tennessee.

You see, about a month ago, my neighbor, The Woodsman, cheerfully announced in our adjoining back yards that his home’s tax assessment dropped by tens of thousands of dollars. Tall Child mentioned it to me, and I remembered that a special envelope from the tax assessor’s office still lay on my desk. Tall Child rushed to open it and find monthly financial relief like The Woodsman did. Christmas in May!

NOPE.

Our assessment rose by almost $40,000.

Tall Child cursed the government. I said, “Well, this just caps off an expensive week. What’s next? GEEZ.” Never take your children to the dentist on the same day. That week, I learned that Gnome needed dental surgery. Sharky needed braces. The guest room toilet broke right before Bop (mother-in-law) was to visit. The alarm on my septic meter in my little uninsulated wooden box house on Little River in Townsend, TN, rang to alert us of a flooded tank and shorted circuit. I had a flat tire on the interstate the same day as the DDS appointments. You understand.

How in the world did the tax assessor’s office come up with that number? We’ve lived here and destroyed this property little-by-little (the rate of destruction advanced when Gnome became a toddler) for seventeen years.

·         Three hail storms

·         One real tornado, not a microburst

·         One burst pipe and septic backup (I lost a good cooler and my Dust Buster in that fight)

·         A terrorist Yorkie

·         My temper (slamming doors, flying drawers)

·         Sharky

·         Gnome

·         The RECESSION

The county valued our property twice as high as they did my neighbors. No way, Jose. I said to Tall Child, “Oh, I’m fighting this.”

Folks, I’m starting to understand/relate more to all those “sovereign citizens” hiding down in shady hollers and high up on our East Tennessee mountain balds. Who is the county government to tell me how much my home is worth? The market decides that. By the way, I’m totally against credit bureaus. And health insurance is a racket.

So, I called the tax assessor’s office and made an appointment to appeal his judgement. Thursday, June 22, 2:30 p.m. was my day in court, so-to-speak. I thought, I’m gonna “Law and Order” this whole situation. I pulled tax cards for four homes in my neighborhood and printed the county’s list of every house (on my street) with its 2017 value. I made notes. I put all that in a file folder. I was prepared, except that I had to park two blocks away and walk in the rain with no umbrella. Dumb me. Umbrellas are a waste of time, though. Always running away.

I stomped up the limestone steps and entered through giant wood doors to greet a conveyor belt and metal detector. Two ladies stood in front of me. They looked to be in their late fifties or early sixties and appeared harmless in their summer blouses and post-menopausal, short, up-and-off-the-face haircuts. One wore a long skirt. One wore capris pants. One-by-one, they plopped their pocketbooks onto the belt. A young red-haired police girl stood guard and watched the x-ray machine do its examination.

Were they neighbors there to argue two assessments? Was one a witness for the other? As in, “Oh, I promise you that her house is NOT worth a flip. Mine is so much nicer.” Or, was something ugly about to go down?

ALERT!

The police girl said to the lady in capris, “Ma’am. Please step over here. There is a knife in your bag.”

Capris said, “Oh my gosh! That’s just my apple peeler.”

The police girl said, “Well, you can’t take it into the session, but you can pick it back up here on your way out.” She put the apple peeler in a brown envelope.

The skirt lady asked, “Where do we go?”

Po-po girl said, “Around these stairs, through the double doors, and down the steps into the basement. You’ll see a big room full of boxes and a woman at a table. That’s where you go.”

Capris lady immediately looked at the policegirl and asked (no joke), “Where do we go to argue a tax assessment?”

Po-po girl said, “Around these stairs, through the double doors, and down the steps into the basement. You’ll see a big room full of boxes and a woman at a table. That’s where you go.”

Capris lady said, “So, we go down the steps? Those go up.” The steps were five feet behind us and about ten feet wide with gigantic craftsman railings. “Those steps?”

Po-po patiently repeated, “Around those stairs, through the double doors, and down the steps into the basement. You’ll see a big room full of boxes and a woman at a table. That’s where you go.”

Capris, “Downstairs.”

Skirt, “Yes, on the other side of these stairs.”

Po-po girl, “Around and down. AROUND and DOWNNNN.”

I didn’t have a metal “apple peeler” in my purse, but my industrial underwire bra, as usual, set off the metal detector. The other po-po waved the bar around me and sent me through to retrieve my purse on the okay end of the conveyor belt.

 I figured I’d lose credibility with wet hair. I looked at the police girl. She anticipated, “Around and down…”

“No,” I interrupted her with a smile, “Where’s the restroom?”

“Oh, right behind me.”

I primped a little and dried my hair the best I could with paper towels. When I walked out into the hallway, the police girl laughed and asked, “Do you know where to go?”

“Around and down. You know, you’d make an excellent middle school teacher.”

So around and down I went into the basement room, which was indeed full of cardboard boxes. What’s in those boxes? Evidence of inefficiency? Stuff that should have been digitized years ago? Appeals? Or perhaps paper timecards for all the excess employees in that old building.
A view from the courthouse basement

There sat The Woman at The Table. I imagined her view all day long: mad people, boxes, and the bottom of stairs, then mad people going up those stairs. Rears. Over and over. All day long.

She gave me a green form and clipboard and said, “Write down what you think your property is worth and sign the bottom.”

I wrote down the exact same value that The Woodsman had. It was $181,000 less than what the property assessor assigned to my house. Do I really think my house is worth half the appraisal? No. I lied. That’s not perjury, right? I was in a courthouse, not a courtroom. No one had me sign a pledge or raise my right hand. Lawyers lie all the time. Thought I’d give it a try. I took pictures, too. I know that’s probably illegal. Whatever. So is screwing homeowners out of hard-earned money. I just held my phone up and faked like I was reading something on the screen and needed glasses.

A man came down the steps and said to the table lady, “I have to appeal several dozen commercial property assessments.”

She said, “Oh, that’s lots of papers. You might want a chair and a table. Go right over there.” She pointed to a tiny table forced into the piles of boxes. I could see the top of his head from where I sat on a fifteen-foot wooden bench against the wall.

She called my name. A man escorted me into the bellows of that basement where a group of older adults sat around a giant computer monitor. They welcomed me, and introduced themselves as the valuation board. I introduced myself.

I asked, “How does this work?”

The escort said, “You have ten minutes to explain why you think we need to reevaluate your property.”

“There’s no protocol?”

“No, ma’am.”

My kind of meeting. Open for my entertainment and creative approach. And a captive audience.

I began my performance. “It all started one May afternoon when my neighbor bragged that his assessment dramatically dropped. Excited, I darted into my home office to retrieve what I thought would be similar good news via your envelope. I was shocked to find that my tax assessment rose by $40,000 to land at double my neighbor’s home’s value. Not only that, but now the increase will cause my mortgage payment to rise by $40 per month, which will indirectly hurt my children, as their appetites have grown and both need dental work.”

An elderly board member said, “What is your property address?”

I told him. I then said, “I pulled the tax cards for three other homes I know inside and out. I also printed the addresses and corresponding values for my entire street.”

A younger board member popped out from behind the monitor and said, “Well, ma’am, we can’t use those because all that really matters are sales prices. Have those houses been sold lately?”

I asked, “There are 55 houses in my subdivision. Why can’t you use YOUR assessments as comps?”

His, um, academic answer was, “Sales are all that matter.”

“Well, the homeowners I’m showing you have lived there 20 years, so those sales numbers are irrelevant anyway.” Annoyed, I said, “When I made this appointment, I was given no instruction or guidance. Why don’t I share the information I gathered and you all just do the best you can with it, since I have only ten minutes to save myself a lot of money and help my children?”

A lady board member chuckled and said, “Sounds fine.”

I quickly described each property like this:

·         Address (so they could pull up the actual image)

·         # bedrooms (all matched my #)

·         Two-car garage

·         Pool

·         Recent renovations

·         The county’s assessment value

Then I described mine:

·         Address

·         Bedrooms (same)

·         NO garage

·         NO carport

·         NO pool

·         The county’s illogical assessment value

The old man asked, “What renovations have you made?”
I said, “New windows in 2003.”

“That’s it?”

“That’s it.”

I offered them my entire folder of “evidence.”

My time was up.

They thanked me, and said I’d get a letter in late July, and that I can appeal that valuation in court if I don’t agree with it. Ooh! Yay!

Before I left, I said to them, “Can I ask y’all a question?”

The lady board member said, “Sure.” She liked me.

“Do people ever come in here and just act CRAZY?”

“Three today” said the monitor man.

“Oh, wow. What do they say?”

Old guy said, “We can’t tell you that.”

“Give me one example. Please.”

“Why?”

“I’m a writer. I need to know.”

He said, “What do you write?”

“Everything and anything.”

“Would any of it put me to sleep?”


I thought, At your age….

“All of it, probably.” I think the lady got the joke.

I then said, “You know, that lady in capris pants who came in before me brought a knife into the building. Good think you have police up there.”

“A knife?” asked one of the men.

“Well, she said it was an apple peeler, but who carries an apple peeler? Maybe she’s on a diet.”

The escort came to walk me out. As I rose from my metal chair, I winked at the old man and said, “Maybe I’ll write a romance novel and make you the star.”

The escort said, “That would be a short story.”

I laid my business card on the table, thanked them, and followed the escort to a basement exit. I spotted the capris and skirt ladies headed back up the steps to get the apple peeler. Check out the shoes on skirt lady. Hmmm. Between you and me, I don't think that apple peeler was an accident. They came ready for a fight.


The moment I got to my car, I grabbed my day planner and wrote down everything I could remember somewhere in the February pages. I will never leave home without a notebook again.

Good luck taxpayers of Knox County. If you need representation, I’m available.

Maybe I’ll get Christmas in an envelope in July.
Stay tuned,

Bug

Just thinking outside the barn...

Just thinking outside the barn...