A tax appeal hearing generally is a four-part process:
1. Make introductions
2. Ensure everyone has the same copies of all the case documents
3. Swear in all litigants and hear their presentation of the testimony
4. Proceed to the ruling
During the introduction, remind the plaintiff that it is their burden to show not only that the assessor has made an inaccurate valuation, but also specifically to show what is the accurate valuation. Many times a litigant will say “I don’t know what my property is worth; I just know it’s not worth what they say it is.” Remind them that it is their job to establish that valuation so you can then make your determination and rule on that value.
While not applicable in other counties, you may be interested to know that in Maricopa County, plaintiffs are reminded that the statues presume the assessor's valuation is accurate and if nothing comes forward during the hearing to rebut that, the court should affirm the assessor's findings.
Tax appeal cases have somewhat relaxed rules of evidence in comparison to other types of cases. Since documents are not marked by the court as exhibits they do not formally have to be accepted by the court. This allows you to accept evidence that would not be considered in a traditional court setting. Be certain, however, that everyone has a copy of any evidence submitted in advance and that everyone has had a chance to review it.
Finally, make sure that all witnesses stand and be sworn in and understand that although the rules of evidence are relaxed, everyone must still be honest and truthful with whatever they are about to present to the court.
Documents can be accepted without foundation. The part that is key for the judicial officer is the weight – the relevance – of the information presented. For example, if someone is trying to show you information about the value of their property from 10 years ago you can accept it, and consider it, but realize that it’s not as strong as more recent information. Again, make sure everyone has a copy of each other’s exhibits so assessors and plaintiff alike are aware of the information each is bringing to the hearing.
At the Testimony stage, things are fairly straightforward: the plaintiff presents his or her information and the assessor gets a chance to respond. Generally, it is not a good idea to let the assessor question the plaintiff during the plaintiff’s testimony. It is better to inform the assessor that he or she can present information to contradict what may have been presented by the plaintiff, or comment on what the plaintiff has been presenting. However, contrary to not letting the assessor question the plaintiff, you should ask the plaintiff if he or she has any questions for the assessor after the assessor has testified. Sometimes you may have to guide the plaintiff to focus on questioning the assessor, and not bringing up a point or points already made during their testimony.
Your ruling will usually occur within 25 minutes or so of going into the courtroom. It must relate to a specific parcel number or parcel numbers and a tax year. In order for taxes to be properly levied when making your ruling, you will need to state an assessed value for each parcel number; you cannot give a cumulative value. For example, if there are three or four parcel numbers, you must state an individual value for each parcel number.
In the ST Case Training Guide you will find a Stipulated Judgment Form (Page 31) which is a standardized ruling form. Note on this form you do not have to make findings of fact, nor do you need to state you have weighed and balanced all the evidence. You simply need to find for Parcel Number X, that it is valued at amount Y for the previous year. For example: “The 2010 full cash value for Parcel No. 214-37-671 located in Mohave County, Arizona, (the “Subject Property”) shall be reduced from $221,358.00 to $140,000.00. The 2010 limited property value shall be determined pursuant to ARS 42-13301.”
In order to avoid creating any unnecessary burdens it is good practice to not attempt to explain how you arrived at your figures, particularly with multiple parcels. For example, you should not try to explain that comparable number one was too far away, comparable number 2 was not an arm's length transaction, and comparable number 3 property was substantially larger than the subject property.