TAXATION -- PROPERTY TAX -- REFUNDS
Entries on tax rolls made pursuant to chapter 253, Laws of 1955, may be corrected by April boards of equalization, and first-half overpayments deducted from amount shown as due on second-half statements.
Tax refunds must be made from county tax refund fund, money for which should be provided by school districts in 1956-1957 budgets.
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June 7, 1956
Honorable J. N. Ryder
State Senator, 46th District
1101 ‑ 2nd Avenue
Seattle, Washington Cite as: AGO 55-57 No. 282
You have requested our opinion as to whether the below described procedures may be employed to effect refunds of property taxes collected under chapter 253, Laws of 1955.
You inquire whether reconvened April county boards of equalization can correct the assessment rolls with respect to school levies to relate those levies to valuations returned by the assessors, and if so, whether the amount shown as originally due on second-half tax statements may be reduced by the total amount illegally assessed on the 1956 rolls, thus giving credit for the illegal portion of first-half tax payments already paid.
This procedure would apply only to those taxpayers who have paid but one‑half of their 1956 taxes. Under existing statutes taxpayers who have paid 1956 taxes in full may obtain refunds only by petitioning or suing. RCW 84.68.110 and 84.68.020. With respect to these taxpayers, you inquire whether school districts should include in their 1956-1957 budget an amount sufficient to pay potential refunds. Also, legislation is proposed which would effect automatic refunds to all such taxpayers regardless [[Orig. Op. Page 2]] of whether their payments had been protested and without requiring either a lawsuit or formal petition for refund on their part.
The proposed act would also authorize school districts to cancel the amounts previously budgeted for refunds of chapter 253 taxes for which purpose money would be appropriated from the $15,000,000 contingency appropriation made by the 1955 legislature (page 1833, Laws of 1955).
This over-all [[overall]]proposal raises other questions which appear to be administrative rather than legal, and consequently will not be discussed in this opinion.
The answers to your respective questions appear in order below.
1. April Boards of Equalization. Specifically the question is whether existing statutes authorize correction of the tax rolls of the various counties by action of the April county boards of equalization, so that as to taxpayers who have paid but one‑half of their taxes, second-half payments may be reduced to give credit for the first-half overpayments.
While the date for meeting of the April boards has now expired, RCW 84.08.060 in part provides:
"The [tax] commission may require any county board of equalization to reconvene at any time for the purpose of performing or completing any duty or taking any action it might lawfully have performed or taken at any of its previous regular July, November, or April meetings. . . ."
Section 3, chapter 112, Laws of 1955, which amended chapter 130, Laws of 1925. (RCW 84.56.400) provides in part as follows:
"The county treasurer shall also make and file with the county board of equalization a record, setting forth the facts relating to such manifest errors in description, double assessments, clerical errors in extending the rolls, and such manifest errors in [[Orig. Op. Page 3]] the listing of property which do not involve a revaluation of property, such as the assessment of property exempted by law from taxation or the failure to deduct the exemption allowed by law to the head of a family, as shall come to his attention after the rolls have been turned over to him for collection. . . .
"The county board of equalization at its meeting on the third Monday in April shall consider such matters as appear in the record filed with it by the county treasurer, and shall only correct such matters as are set forth in such record, but it shall have no power to change or alter the assessment of any person, . . . The board shall make findings of the facts upon which it bases its decision on all matters submitted to it, and when so made the assessment and levy shall have the same force as if made in the first instance, and the county treasurer shall proceed to collect the taxes due on the rolls as modified."
The answer to the question depends upon whether the extension on the rolls of 1956 taxes in accordance with provisions of chapter 253 constituted "manifest error" within the contemplation of this statute. It must be recognized that if this procedure is unavailable, nearly every taxpayer in the state who has paid only one‑half of his 1956 taxes will be required, with his second-half payment, to pay taxes unconstitutionally imposed. With the present and certain knowledge that a portion of the taxes billed on the tax statements originally mailed are illegal, it would be patently absurd to require payment and thus impose on such taxpayers the expense and inconvenience of recovery. Such construction should obviously be avoided if at all possible.
"Manifest" is defined as:
"Evident to the senses, esp. to the sight; apparent; distinctly perceived; hence, obvious to the understanding; evident to the mind; not obscure or hidden." Webster's New Int. Dictionary, (2nd Ed.).
[[Orig. Op. Page 4]]
At the time the 1956 rolls were prepared, chapter 253 was necessarily presumed to be constitutional, but extension of the tax rolls pursuant to the procedure established by chapter 253 was obviously erroneous, despite the fact such could not have been known at the time the extensions were made. Continued collection of taxes pursuant to such obviously incorrect rolls would be but a senseless perpetuation of the error.
These conclusions are in accord with prior opinions of this office In an opinion to the tax commission of December 8, 1947, this office advised that omitted property assessments extended on the rolls in a manner which was invalid under the holding of an earlier decision of the state supreme court, constituted manifest errors which should and could be corrected by action of a November county board of equalization. That opinion concluded that a manifest error was not limited to mere clerical errors or ones that were apparent solely from an examination of the tax rolls themselves. The language of RCW 84.56.400 (§ 3, chapter 112, Laws of 1955) is broader than that appearing in RCW 84.52.090 which pertains to the November boards and which the above noticed opinion construes.
We do not overlook the fact that the April board statute expressly precludes consideration of matters involving alteration of any person's assessment or of the aggregate value of the property in the county. Such will not occur, however, in the proposed process of restoring the rolls to their proper form. The action of the April boards would be to simply expunge the rolls of the void entries made in conformance with chapter 253, and extend school taxes upon the proper valuations fixed by the assessors.
2. Refund levies. The April board procedure concerns only those taxpayers who have paid but one‑half of their 1956 property taxes. Many other taxpayers have fully paid their 1956 taxes and are now entitled to a refund of the illegally collected portion of those payments. Under existing statutes the money for such refunds must come from the county tax refund fund, RCW 84.68.030, and must be raised by taxes imposed this coming October by the school districts pursuant to RCW 84.68.040. Operating, as they must, under existing statutes, the school districts should this summer budget sufficient amounts within their 14 mill levy to provide for the estimated potential refunds. Whether such funds can ultimately be obtained from other sources will require, as you have indicated, specific legislation on the matter.
[[Orig. Op. Page 5]]
3. Proposed legislation. You have inquired whether an act can be constitutionally drawn which would authorize transfer of funds appropriated by the legislature from the state's general fund for payment to the tax refund funds of the respective counties. Such appropriation would provide money to refund most of the taxes collected under chapter 253, Laws of 1955. The legislation would entitle all taxpayers who have made overpayments to a refund whether they had paid their taxes under protest or not. The money used for paying such refunds would be credited to the respective school districts and permit cancellation of most of their amounts budgeted for tax refunds this year and authorize expenditure of such cancelled amounts for current general expenses. The $15,000,000 appropriation made by the 1955 legislature, which is contingent upon chapter 253, would be revoked and a sufficient amount thereof appropriated for refunds as above described with the remainder going to the current school fund to assist in replacing revenue lost to the local school districts because of the failure of chapter 253 to be sustained.
Aside from the usual hazards related purely to ever present drafting problems, it is our opinion that the proposed legislation would not contravene any constitutional provisions.
Very truly yours,
Assistant Attorney General