CFO Declares Jihad Against the Post
Fight! Fight ! Fight!
D.C.'s Office of the Chief Financial Officer is throwing punches at the Washington Post over—of all things—its efforts to pay less in property taxes.
You may have read the Post's big investigative story on the CFO's Office of Tax and Revenue settling commercial property tax assessments at a much high rate than in year's past. A bit of a snoozer, but the CFO still pushed back hard trying to debunk the story after it came out earlier this month.
When the Post editorial board called the CFO's office a "pushover," then things got personal. Sayeth the Post:
For years the office stood its ground, fighting to defend the values it assigns for tax purposes to office complexes and apartment buildings — and, by extension, defending the city’s revenue base, which depends heavily on property taxes. Outgunned by high-priced lawyers, sometimes it lost, though in recent years it fared better. But it fought.
Then something changed. As The Post reported last week, District tax officials suddenly decided that fighting to maintain the city’s revenue base was too costly or too much trouble — or something. So instead of sticking to their guns, and to their initial assessments of the worth of some large buildings, the city started caving.
But CFO spokesman David Umansky recently sent a letter to reporters calling their attention to the fact that the Post has fought its property tax assessments (using high-priced lawyers) on a semi-regular basis. "Why is it wrong for some property owners’ assessments to be lowered, but not the Post’s?" says Umansky, who helpfully attached a spreadsheet of the Post's property taxes over the last few years and a court filing in one of its current tax cases.
To be fair to the paper of record, the Post isn't criticizing commercial property taxpayers for appealing their taxes, but the the city for settling some of these cases too easily. (The city has valued the Post's downtown headquarters at $77. 8 million for tax year 2013, by the way, down from $92.6 million three years ago.)
But Umansky says his other point is that the Post should have disclosed to its readers that it's one of the big commercial real estate owners who routinely challenge their property tax assessments that the paper is writing about. ""Why wouldn't they disclose this," says Umansky. "All they have to do is disclose this and it's not an issue." A fair argument? Meh. LL can see both, unexciting arguments for and against the paper including that kind of info. (Representatives of the Post did not immediately return emails seeking comment.)
Speaking of boring, the Post ran a follow-up story today about an internal audit from the CFO's office that found that a handful of managers had the power to alter someone's tax bill without leaving a record of that change. "The audit cites no examples of wrongdoing by the tax office’s staff members," reported the paper.
The Post's motivation for running the story? Revenge, says Umansky.
"The second story came about because we criticized the first story."
That's almost certainly not true, but it's worth noting that's how city officials think sometimes.