This section of the book is from the "Introduction To Public Finance" book, by Carl Copping Plehn.
In the case of direct taxes it is the assessment that is the most difficult part of the process. The methods of assessing some of the taxes have already been suggested. The work consists of two parts. (1) It is necessary to ascertain the base — the persons, the property, or the revenues subject to taxation. (2) It is then necessary to fix upon the valuation, or the rating of the base in each particular case. The latter part of the process is "making the assessment." In this the contributor may be called upon to assist, or the officers of the government may proceed entirely alone. Generally a declaration is requested, or may be required, from the tax-payer, and the officials then investigate the truth of that declaration. In Europe it is customary to form assessment commissions consisting of representatives of the tax-payers in the district, who are acquainted with the local conditions and act with the officers of the government. These commissions help the regular officers of the fiscus to make the assessment, or sit as a sort of court to hear appeals from the assessment made, or both. The final assessment, however, is made by the fiscal officers.
In the American commonwealths, the assessment of the general property tax is usually made by a board of locally elected assessors or an assessor. The assessor calls for declarations from the different contributors. The law in most States imposes severe penalties for failure to comply with the requirement of declaration, or for false declaration. But, nevertheless, there is, for the most part (Pennsylvania is almost the only exception), the utmost laxity in enforcing the law concerning declarations. Only the unusually conscientious, who voluntarily come forward with complete statements, are reached in this way. So general is the habit of neglecting this duty that it is practically impossible for the assessor, no matter how anxious he may be to have the law complied with, to prosecute all the persons whom he knows are evading assessment. The general practice is to default the declaration and allow the assessor to find out if he can what taxable property the contributor has. If this
were done by only a few persons they could easily be brought to terms under the existing laws, but when nine-tenths of the population refuse to comply, the assessor is helpless, and the only effect that follows from the declaration by the few is to make the existing inequalities of the general property tax worse than ever. Real estate and other visible property is easily assessed. The officer has at his command the records of titles, of deeds, etc., which he can investigate, and he ascertains the value of each piece from his own personal observation of prevailing prices. As we have seen, personal, intangible property escapes almost entirely. It would seem that this difficulty of administration is insuperable. No merely severe methods of assessment will ever cure the evil.
Above the assessor in the United States there are generally two boards of equalisation, though sometimes only one. The first board is local, covering the same district as the assessor. This hears appeal from the tax-payers in regard to their assessment. It equalises between individuals. The second board is for the whole commonwealth, and is known as the State Board of Equalisation. These boards are to adjust the burden of State taxation equally between the different districts. As has already been explained, a local assessor may make the assessment in his district lower than that in the other districts. This will not affect the burden of local taxation, for all that is needed is to raise the rate. But it lessens, if the assessment stands, the burden which the State taxes impose. These central boards are of two kinds : (1) those with power to add to or subtract from the assessment of each district, but in such a way as not to change the total amount; (2) those with power to change the assessment, even of the individuals, and which may and generally do change the total assessment of the State. As these boards seldom have sufficient powers, and never sufficient information as to the local conditions, the effect of their action is not all that could be desired. The only possible solution of this difficulty is the separation of local taxation from that of the commonwealths, so that the assessment can be made independently for each.