It is difficult to describe the minutia of the workings of the general property tax by the use of broad generalizations. Each of the forty-eight states is governed by an individual constitution, and different ideas prevail among the older and newer sections of the country as to the nature and functions of government. One need not be surprised, then, to find wide variations in the application of revenue systems the fundamentals of which are the same. Perhaps the most easily traced are those which arise because the conceptions as to the functions of government are not uniform.
The most purely democratic form of government on the Continent was developed in the New England colonies, and this spirit of democracy still permeates the New England states, and those which have been modeled after them. The machinery and working of the general property tax in this district corresponds to what one might expect under such circumstances. The important governmental unit is small, usually designated as the town or township, and varies in size from a small city ward in some of the Eastern states to the regulation township in some of the states farther west. The burden placed upon each assessor is so small that his duties can generally be performed in a few days, and do not materially interfere with his ordinary business. He is elected by his associates, usually for one or two years, and would naturally be expected to have some knowledge of the property which it becomes his duty to assess.
There is a wide variation in the amount of centralized control which is exercised over the fiscal machinery in the region where this type prevails. It may be said to exist in some degree in the territory north and east of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. It would naturally be expected that this centralized control would be less in those districts where the ideals of democracy were most firmly fixed. In the old New England states, therefore, there is comparatively little supervision from any central authorities. Rhode Island furnishes the most extreme example of absence of centralization, although the same situation prevails to a less extent in other states.
In Rhode Island the county does not exist in the sense that it is found in other states. The state provides for the tax by general statute, determines the amount of the state levy, and leaves the administrative details entirely to local authorities. The necessary number of assessors is elected at the regular town meeting, and these assessors have broad and practically final powers in the assessment of property. In some states these ideals of local autonomy have been less fixed, and the amounts collected for the counties and states have assumed a large proportion of the entire tax. Under these conditions there has been a gradual development of central supervision. County and state equalization boards have been instituted; supervision is exercised over local assessors by county and state officers, and meetings of local assessors are frequently held that they may be instructed in more just and efficient methods of rendering their services.