One of Adam Smith's canons of taxation is that taxes shall be certain and not arbitrary. We have gone far, as has been previously noted, in constitutional attempts to enforce this ideal. In practice, however, much arbitrariness has been found from the beginning because of the difficulty in the administration of the tax laws. The administration is usually left in the hands of local officials, who are seldom adverse to catering to the good will of their constituency. No way is more sure of winning popular favor, moreover, than through the curtailment of the burden of taxes that the individual believes he would otherwise have to pay. The result has been that many assessments have been arbitrarily made by the assessor in order to gain or maintain popular favor. As industry has grown more complex, the possibilities of these arbitrary assessments have also grown.
At first thought one would think that little chance exists for arbitrary assessments in the case of real estate, since it is visible, and since comparisons can easily be made between different parcels. Selling prices, also, are generally known and can be used as a basis for assessment. Many arbitrary assessments still result, however, especially in the large cities. Here values are likely to fluctuate rapidly and unexpectedly, so that to actually value the property really becomes the business of an expert-a qualification that assessors seldom possess. All they can hope to do, even in a conscientious performance of their duties, is to use their best guess, which frequently happens to be far from the actual value.
Equalization Boards. - From the earliest times the inequalities and injustices which have arisen from real estate assessments have not continued unnoticed and with no attempts to make corrections. One of the earliest plans to secure a just assessment was to have a review and equalization of assessments by a board higher up than the local assessors. That the need was recognized early is indicated by the fact that before the end of the Revolution an appeal was made to the Governor of New York to provide some method for equalizing assessments. From this early date to the present time the equalization of assessments has been used extensively in an attempt to secure greater equality and justice.
Modern equalization boards are of two kinds - those that equalize assessments within a county, or the county equalization boards, and those that equalize assessments among counties, or the state equalization boards. City equalization boards sometimes exist and possess a varying degree of power.
The state equalization board, which exists in some form in more than three fourths of the states, usually has no power to change individual assessments, but only to make more equitable adjustments between counties. In a few cases individual adjustments can be made. The state board is usually comparatively free from political influence, but the magnitude of its task precludes any entirely satisfactory distribution of tax burdens.
The county equalization board has a widespread existence, and varies in the degree of its efficiency. The powers are so limited, frequently, that any possible effectiveness in accomplishing the desired results is destroyed. Local politics and conditions, combined with personal favoritism, have had so much influence, in general, that the accomplishments have not been what justice would demand.
Other Attempts. - Another remedial measure that has been attempted is to make the assessor an appointee of some central authority, thus removing the influence of local politics. The extension of his tenure of office for a period long enough so that he can attain some degree of efficiency, has also been adopted in some localities. Some states have inaugurated the policy of holding conferences for assessors in order that they may have the advice of others in the same work as well as the benefit of their experience. As a whole, however, little has been accomplished in mitigating the evils of inequalities in assessing real estate.
Progress in Cities. - Assessments in cities are peculiarly difficult because of the enormous and rapidly changing values. Some city officials have sensed this situation to such an extent that definite methods of assessment have been adopted. Tax maps are constructed that show the exact size and location of each parcel of land. Some unit value is hit upon as a standard of measurement, as so much for a front foot. With this unit of value in mind definite variations are made for distance from the main street, the depth of the lot, and other factors that definitely affect values. A number of cities have even called in experts in valuation to aid in placing a proper assessment on property. The merit of such plans has been in their uniformity and in the divorcing of the assessments from the guesswork of the assessors. The movement toward the separate assessment of land and buildings indicates that the general adoption of this method would aid materially in obtaining a just assessment of these two classes of real estate.