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ACLU sues Jackson County, assessment director over 'discriminatory' tax cap

Posted at 11:54 AM, Dec 19, 2019
and last updated 2019-12-19 19:27:53-05

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The American Civil Liberties Union has filed a lawsuit against Jackson County and its director of assessment, alleging a property tax "cap" was applied unfairly and violated the Fair Housing Act.

The lawsuit, filed in the 16th Judicial Circuit Court on behalf of four Kansas City, Missouri, neighborhood associations, alleges that the Jackson County Assessment Department, under Director of Assessment Gail McCann Beatty, intentionally capped increases at 14.9% in majority white neighborhoods more than in majority black or Hispanic neighborhoods.

"It's criminal, I believe it is," Gerry Roseburrough, a Westside resident, told 41 Action News on Thursday.

Gillian Wilcox, an attorney with the ACLU, said many more properties in majority white neighborhoods were beneficiaries of a 14.9% cap on their tax increases than properties in black and Hispanic neighborhoods.

Under Missouri law, the assessed value of a residential property cannot increase by more than 15% without a physical inspection of the property. According to the lawsuit, 28% of Jackson County properties were assessed at an increase of 14.9%, or just below the 15% mark that would trigger a physical inspection.

According to the lawsuit, the 14.9% cap “was not applied evenhandedly or lawfully." The lawsuit cites a comparison study that found in one majority white area, 54.5% of properties were capped at a 14.9% increase, while in a majority black and Hispanic area, 1.33% of properties "received the benefit of the 14.9% cap."

"We'd like a court to declare that it discriminates and to order the county to fix the problem and to come up with policy that does not discriminate against minorities," Wilcox said.

According to the ACLU, data analysts compared the assessment data and laid it over a map of the metro. Areas that are largely in inner-city neighborhoods saw their property assessments increase by more than 50%, according to the ACLU.

The Westside, Vineyard, Ivanhoe and Washington Wheatley neighborhoods are included as plaintiffs in the lawsuit. Officials with those neighborhood associations say they're still fielding calls from worried homeowners since outrage over property assessments erupted this summer.

"You got people that's lived in their homes for decades. That's their whole life is that old house," Roseburrough said. "And when you raise it $1,000, when you're on a fixed income, it might as well be $5 because they're stretched to the max already."

A Jackson County spokesperson told 41 Action News that the county does not comment on pending litigation as a matter of policy.

As for homeowners, tax bills are due at the end of the month, and thousands of taxpayers are still waiting to have their assessment appeal heard by the county's Board of Equalization.

"I'm hoping this might give some of them hope today, that somebody is trying to do something," community advocate Teresa Perry said.