Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Reforming Cleveland's tax assessments after 1910

I'm researching an aspect of Mayor Tom L. Johnson's Progressive reforms -- land valuation -- that doesn't get as much notice as other aspects, but I lack an understanding of the wider context against which these reforms can be understood.

One of Johnson's lieutenants, Frederic C. Howe, was instrumental in bringing William A. Somers to Cleveland from his position in the New York City office of Taxation, where he'd developed an equitable method of determining the fair assessment values of land, which was called the Somers Unit System. The idea was to reform the practice of assessing land values by instituting an open, "scientific" process of community participation to arrive at the unit value of land on each and every block in the city. The unit was a standard parcel, one hundred feet deep and one foot wide, from the value of which all actual parcels could be calculated.

He teamed up with John A. Zangerle and others and in 1910 issued the results of their labors, the First Quadrennial Assessment of Real Property in the City of Cleveland, which explained the system and displayed all the arrived-at valuations in a series of City maps. Thereafter Zangerle was elected Cuyahoga County Auditor and spent several decades applying the Somers/Zangerle system to the County's Assessment, producing similar atlases of land valuation maps in 1931, 1937 and 1946, under the title The Princples of Land and Building Appraisals as Scientifically Applied in Cuyahoga County.

While the details of this system are well-chronicled in these four atlases and various other publications of the time, I'm not clear about what system preceded it that needed to be reformed. I gather than it was an informal series of estimates by ward representatives that was compiled into the overall assessment for the period, but I haven't seen that documented. Nor have I really grasped the influence of their system in later years, as the process of assessing land for taxation become more codified and applied statewide.

P.S. Here is a video of my 2009 presentation on this topic to the Council of Georgist Organizations, meeting in Cleveland.

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