Friday, January 16, 2009


AND HAST THOU SLAIN THE JABBERWOCK?: When the local paper’s former editor Adam Harju left for Cambodia many in the community clinked Champaign glasses and happily warned him against letting the egress barrier strike him in the posterior upon his way out.

And why not? Like most others he came here “on the circuit”- a loose web of small newspapers around the country where journalists float from job to job for short periods until they wear out their welcome or have a chance to “move up” to either a larger newspaper or an editorial or management position.

Many chortled at Harju’s oft-stated concern for the community and his vow to stick around (as long as the surf was good). It was nothing we hadn’t heard from the others and won’t hear again.

And although Harju was originally gung ho for the idea of regular local columnists he was soon set straight by Publisher Mark Lewis as to what was and wasn’t acceptable to the advertisers and local power elite.

Though many- us included- sought a regular column only two scribes made the grade. The first, Juan Wilson, was soon hastily dispatched when he submitted an article critical of the local constabulary’s militaristic buildup.

And that left one- retired Princeville attorney Walter Lewis whose prose graces the lowest circulation day’s opinion page every other week.

Lewis’ columns are generally repetitive, plodding , bland and, though many have criticized the county council and other boards and commissions for their penchant for secrecy, pretty innocuous.

But although his subject matter has been limited, his factual claims have generally been on target... until now.

The problem with Walter is- as anyone who has tried to work with him on any issue soon finds out- he is never wrong, never makes a mistake and won’t listen to anyone. If any idea isn’t Walter’s it not only goes in one ear and out the other but is dismissed through the kind of smug and disingenuous obtuseness only Walter can muster.

And so it was no surprise this week that, when we found a major error in the main premise of his column on property tax appeals this past Saturday, even when faced with the irrefutable error in fact, his final word on the matter was essentially “that’s my story and I’m sticking with it”.

Lewis’s offending paragraph read as follows:

The property tax law contains a serious flaw affecting whether taxpayers must accept an unjust assessment of their property. Under the tax code a taxpayer may not appeal an assessment made unless the assessment amount is more than 20 percent higher than the prior annual assessment. In our present climate even continuing the 2008 year opening value may be a serious overassessment but a taxpayer would have no right to appeal it. Elementary justice requires that this be changed.

Problem is that this just plain wrong. Nowhere in the law does it even mention anything about “prior annual assessments” or anything like it.

Having followed the public hearing at which both Lewis and North Shore Realtor Mike Dyer testified we though we heard Walter say the same thing in testimony only to be contradicted by Dyer and by what we had understood to be the process for many years.

In fact the “20%”- which is a figure subject to a reduction to 10% in a bill on the agenda at next Wednesday’s council Finance Committee meeting- refers to the difference between what the county assessor claims is the value of your house or property and what the Board of Review finds to be the actual “market value”.

The language in Section 5A-12.3(a) is as follows:

"No owner shall be deemed aggrieved by an assessment, nor shall an assessment be lowered ... unless there is shown: (1) Assessment of the property exceeds by more than twenty per cent (20%) the assessment of market value used by the Director as the real property tax base".

So we spent the last week emailing both Lewis and Dyer to straighten it out and give Lewis a chance to simply recognize his error and correct it. We all make mistakes and it’s something one would think any responsible journalist with a regular column in the newspaper would welcome the chance to do.

Ah but not Lewis who stated to the council he had never actually filed an appeal while Dyer, who owns a lot of property on the island, said he usually files one or more almost every year.

In an email to PNN Dyer explained the way it actually works, the same way he did when he testified before the council in favor of not just lowering the difference to 10% but advocating for an arbitrator type system to replace the current method used- a determination by the Board of Review (the only county board that pays its members) using some set of secretive almost magical soothsaying machinations to find out whether the assessor’s valuation is off by more than 20% and what the correct value should be.

In an email Dyer explained:

The "Taxpayer's Notice of Real Property Tax Appeal" form requires that the taxpayer state what his assessed value should be. The value stated must be 20% lower than the assessed value provided to the taxpayer "on or before March 15th preceding the tax year" by the assessor's office. The form only includes one check box option for " ... grounds of objection to the assessment per Section 5A-12.3 ...": " The assessed value of the property exceeds by more than twenty percent (20%) the ratio of assessment to market value." If you submit an appeal claiming a market value that is not at least 20% lower than the assessor's valuation you won't be scheduled for an appeal hearing.

The language in Section 5A-12.3(a) is as follows: "No owner shall be deemed aggrieved by an assessment, nor shall an assessment be lowered ..., unless there is shown: (1) Assessment of the property exceeds by more than twenty per cent (20%) the assessment of market value used by the Director as the real property tax base, ...". I have no idea what the last phrase means. However, my experience has been that you must contend that the assessor is too high by at least 20% or you don't even get to play.

In actual appeals it has been my experience that the Board of Review can be fickle. I have seen them grant adjustments of less than 20% and I have seen them uphold the assessor's valuation because the taxpayer didn't convince them in an amount which quite reached the 20% threshold ... losing even though you win.

Dyer’s email was addressed to Lewis too and we thought that surly with the ordinance being cited- a law that Lewis presumably has seen since he was observed reading from the entire current ordinance as he testified- that Lewis would act to correct himself.

But suddenly Lewis became obtuse and unresponsive until we persisted in finding out whether he wanted to make his own statement rather than having us correct it for him.

If the misstatement was left to stand there’s no telling how many homeowners might be wrongly dissuaded from thinking that could even file an appeal.

That’s when he told us it was only our “opinion” as to what the ordinance said and that he would not be correcting anything.

This is typical Lewis, the father of the infamous “Ohana” Prop.13-type tax measure approved by voters and struck down by the Hawai`i Supreme Court, exemplifying his modus operandi.

At the time, when the idea was in it’s infancy, the notion of capping the annual growth of the actual tax paid by the home-owner/occupant at 2% a year and rolling the “base” back to the time before assessments started to sky-rocket, seemed a decent one to many.

Horror tales abounded especially those whose taxes went from a few hundred to many thousands a year, including retired people on fixed incomes and others whose valuations increased exponentially due to sales of neighboring properties to rich off-island speculators during the housing bubble.

But as in uffish thought they stood, many said “hey wait a minute”. The measure was designed to accommodate those who had no intention of selling their homes and just wanted to live in their now million dollar houses for which they paid maybe $50,000 or less... or even inherited.

So one provision was suggested to Lewis, eventually even by Ohana co-founders Ray Chuan and Glenn Mickens as well as then Council Chair Ron Kouchi.

To get more support for his “charter amendment” and perhaps get the council on board or even put it in an ordinance, they simply asked that when and if the house was sold, the taxes saved over the years should be paid back to the county.

But Walter wouldn’t listen and so when the council sued- and the courts struck it down saying only the council could determine taxes- homeowners were left with no real cap except one that the council passed without the rollback to the pre-bubble prices- after the horse was out of the barn.

And because of that, many lost their homes or are still paying inflated taxes today.

Iconoclastic is often a nice way of saying pig-headed and never did that apply more than in the odd case of this oddly pompous man, Walter Lewis.

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