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Judge Declines to Hear St. John Property Tax Suit

With St. John’s Unity Day Group’s day in court set for Monday, U.S. District Judge Curtis Gomez on Jan. 31 dismissed its suit brought in April 2008 in an attempt to get relief for St. John residents faced with huge tax bills.

The group formed after residents learned that the 2005 revaluation by the Tax Assessor’s office resulted in property values far higher than their properties were actually worth.

In his opinion, Gomez wrote that the suit was now a moot point because the Berne property tax case was settled. Additionally, he said that the Unity Day Group’s case centered on a 2006 tax bill.

The 2006 tax bills originally went out in August 2008 using the revaluations done by Bearing Point in 2005, but the court ruled the government was in contempt for not obtaining approval to send them out. Those bills were subsequently rescinded.

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Finally, in July 2010, the government sent out the 2006 bills using the 1998 rates.

“Here, the rescission of the 2006 tax bills and reissuance of 2006 tax bills based on the 1998 assessment values, has conclusively extinguished the life of the original 2006 tax bills,” Gomez wrote.

District Court and the local government reached a settlement in January in the Berne case, which means property tax bills will go out at the 1998 rates for 2007, 2008, and 2009.

The Berne case centers on a suit brought by a group of St. Thomas commercial property owners who said their properties were valued differently than residential properties. In a consent decree issued in 2003, the court ordered the government to revalue all property across the territory.

The government hired Bearing Point to do the job in 2005. Properties must be revalued every five years, which means 2010 was the target year.

Myrtle Barry, who heads the Unity Day Group’s property tax committee, fears that when the government does a mandatory revaluation to set the 2010 rates, St. John property owners will again be hit with high tax bills because their properties will still be overvalued.

“Remember those whopping bills? That’s what it’s going to be. We’re going to be taxed out of our shoes,” Barry said.

Key in the Unity Day Group case is its assertion that Bearing Point allegedly classified St. John property differently from similar property in St. Croix and St. Thomas “without reason or justification,” court documents indicate. They assert that the “wildly inflated valuation” exists because of the “arbitrary and capricious method of assessing property” done by Bearing Point.

Attorney Jim Derr, who represented the plaintiffs in both the Berne and Unity Day Group cases, said he learned in December that according to the government’s contract with Bearing Point, 10 percent of all properties across the territory must have a complete revaluation. The rest will have values adjusted using the old data that includes measurements of the properties, location and other factors.

“There is incorrect data,” he said, noting that some St. John properties had the incorrect number of bedrooms listed.

Barry said she knows of a quarter-acre parcel of steep land in Contant that was valued at $52,000 in 1998. After Bearing Point’s 2005 revaluation, the value jumped to $508,000.

Derr also said that he knows of at least 247 properties on St. John that were not revalued.

The Unity Day Group plans to ask Gomez to reconsider, Derr said. If that fails, the group will ask the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals to mandate that District Court take up the matter. If Gomez will reconsider, Derr said it will take until about June for the case to be resolved. If it goes to the 3rd Circuit, Derr estimated it will be up to another year before the case comes to an end.

All this costs money, especially since travel costs will be involved if the case goes to the 3rd Circuit, which meets in Philadelphia. The Unity Day Group raised funds to file its original suit by donations from St. John residents. Neither Barry nor Derr could say how much they’d spent.

“But it has been expensive,” Derr said.

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