Thomas A. Jaconetty is the chief deputy commissioner of the Board of Review (formerly the Board of Appeals) of Cook County, Illinois. During the past 24 years he has been involved in the disposition or review of taxes on more than 600,000 parcels of real estate. He is a member of the International Association of Assessing Officers (IAAO); the Chicago, Illinois State (ISBA) and American Bar Associations; the Justinian Society of Lawyers; and many other professional associations. He has served as a member and chair of the ISBA State and Local Taxation Section Council and contributed to the Illinois Department of Revenue's Recodification Project.
A certified review appraiser and formerly an arbitrator for the Circuit Court of Cook County, Jaconetty has authored numerous articles and chapters for legal and taxation publications, edited three books and is working on a fourth. He has lectured at or moderated many educational programs on property taxation and assessment administration, and has published over a dozen articles on those topics. In 1998 he was appointed to the Planning Committee of the National Conference of State Tax Judges, and he served as conference chairman for the past two years.
Land Lines: How did you first become involved with the Lincoln Institute?
Thomas Jaconetty: I was familiar with the Institute’s work through its presentations at the annual conferences of the International Association of Assessing Officers (IAAO) and various other educational seminars. In 1994 the chairman of the National Conference of State Tax Judges, Ignatius MacLellan of the New Hampshire Board of Tax and Land Appeals, invited me to attend the conference after reviewing articles I had written on “Highest and Best Use” and “Valuation of Federally Subsidized Housing.” I found the experience invigorating, challenging and intellectually stimulating. The conference was and continues to be the best seminar in which I am involved each year, and I attend quite a few.
LL: As the past chairman, how do you see the role of the National Conference?
TJ: For 25 years the conference has functioned as a clearinghouse of ideas for officials exercising judicial or quasi-judicial powers over tax cases for statewide or regional jurisdictions. Noted authorities in the field, state tax court judges and officials of established tax courts are drawn together in an informal, collegial environment. The conference encourages improved decision making, the exchange of data and resources, the analysis of complex legal issues, and an avenue for a free-flowing interchange of ideas. The personal and professional relationships are open, friendly and dynamic, and there is plenty of room for divergent opinion, eclectic thought and agreement to disagree.
The Planning Committee of about 15 regular participants develops annual programs, and the rest of the members are actively involved with making presentations, offering suggestions, working on committees, attending the sessions and contributing to the overall educational experience. The annual fall conference is the most significant opportunity for formal interaction, but ongoing discussions are supported by the use of e-mail, the Lincoln Web site and the members’ professional involvement in other organizations.
LL: Why is it important for tax adjudicators to have this forum?
TJ: We are surrounded by ever-changing ideas and theories that we must balance against time-honored principles of taxation, complex economic relationships and the expectations of government. Each state has individual statutes and case law, but there is a high level of commonality among basic tax principles and a finite number of responses to factual situations. In spite of the many recurring and vexing issues that confront us, regular communication offers an opportunity to encourage consistency and consensus on the one hand and divergent opinion and reasoned dissent on the other. Members actively seek suggestions, advice and even help from their colleagues, who eagerly and generously respond.
LL: How have you seen the National Conference evolve during the years of your involvement?
TJ: Actually, there has been a remarkable level of consistency. There has been a core group of representatives from about 15 states and another dozen or so that change over time. Many members predate my involvement and others are very new. The most significant changes have been the enhanced communication offered by e-mail and the willingness of the group to probe into ethical, theoretical, decision-making and policy-based questions. There also has been a noticeable increase in volunteerism and in the number of women who are active participants.
I think there is a growing awareness that the deference given to any fact-finding agency (such as the state tax courts from whence our members come) creates a complementary responsibility to evaluate tax controversies within a framework that addresses all of the pertinent legal, valuation, philosophical and public policy issues. From all of that we hope to attain “justice,” which James Madison argued “is the end of government.”
LL: What do you see as the greatest challenges to the conference?
TJ: Remaining timely and relevant, and maintaining a cutting-edge outlook. Not every ascendant theory is always supportable or reasonable, but we seek to remain receptive, open and flexible while respecting the basic principles of state and local taxation that have stood the test of time. As issues become more complex and multi-jurisdictional, there is always a tug-of-war between local control and innovation versus national consistency and uniformity. This era of enormous budgetary constraints on state and local agencies places a premium on knowing where to go for expertise.
We face new challenges and are learning every day, and the conference presents the opportunity to encourage that growth. As John Quincy Adams said, “To furnish the means of acquiring knowledge is . . . the greatest benefit that can be conferred upon mankind.” We are also working to increase our membership and recruit more participation from states not currently represented. The optimum goal is to have around 55 to 60 active participants at any one time.
LL: What role does the Lincoln Institute play?
TJ: It is the heart and the soul of the conference. Especially in these trying economic times, without the Institute’s support many of our members would not have the local funding and financial wherewithal to attend the conference. And, without the organizing ability of the Institute staff, there would be no conference. The Lincoln Institute is uniquely qualified to create the healthy intellectual environment that brings the tax policy, legislative, academic, practitioner and administrative points of view before those very persons who decide the cases and, in so doing, “make the law.”
LL: You alluded to policy. Should judges and tax adjudicators be involved in considering public policy?
TJ: I can only suggest my own view. How judges and adjudicative bodies rule is almost inevitably a reflection of what they learn, know, believe, have proven before them, sense and comprehend, as well as what appears to be just. Everything must be taken against the backdrop of the purposes of the law and the ends that the law seeks to achieve. The more informed, eclectic, analytical and open the decision maker, the better the outcome.
The valuation of contaminated property (brownfields) and subsidized housing are two real property tax areas that immediately come to mind. These are technical issues, but they require an appreciation of the larger context and policy implications, as well as the proper balance between legislation and its interpretation.
The Lincoln Institute has had a significant and salutary impact on the development of sound tax policy. Henry George, whose writings inspire the Institute’s work, addressed these issues in The Land Question “[Taxation] must not take from individuals what rightfully belongs to individuals.” In Progress and Poverty he stated, “It is the taking by the community, for the use of the community, of that value which is the creation of the community.” But, as an exercise of power, it “must not repress industry . . . check commerce . . . [or] punish thrift . . .”
LL: What are some of the major tax issues facing tribunals today?
TJ: On the real property taxation side there is the taxation of contaminated property; the use and misuse of the cost approach; valuation of subsidized housing; the effect of low-income housing tax credited property; and the changing face of charitable and nonprofit entities. There are so many other issues: the application of traditional sales, use, gross receipts and income tax principles to an ever-expanding and global economy; related questions of nexus jurisdiction and extraterritorial power; the impact of e-commerce; the clash and interrelationship of the due process and commerce clauses; local autonomy challenged by movements to adopt model acts.
Other more general concerns include alternative dispute resolution; pro se litigants; ethics (appraiser, assessor, judicial); regulation versus deregulation; court management; and the role of policy in decision making. Added to these are the routine daily determinations that must be made by tribunals and agencies that form the grist of the taxation process, which is the lifeblood of government—that which Oliver Wendell Holmes characterized as “what we pay for civilized society.”
LL: How does the National Conference of State Tax Judges interact with other professional associations?
TJ: Many members of the conference are active at the state and local level with continuing legal education (CLE), appraisal or assessment organizations, such as seminars offered with the Appraisal Institute. Others take part in presentations sponsored by local directors of revenue or bar-related symposia on tax issues. Some sit on advisory commissions, boards, panels and task forces. Still others, including myself, have a continuing relationship with the IAAO, which offers an especially valuable and practical access to the assessment side of the real property world.
LL: Any final thoughts on the conference and its future?
TJ: Having just completed my two-year term as chairman, I hope it can be said that the conference maintained the high standards set by my immediate predecessors—Ignatius MacLellan, Joseph Small and Blaine Davis. I certainly feel that the future is in capable hands with our new chair, Arnold Aronson. With the biannual rotation of the conference to different locations around the U.S., it returns to Cambridge next year to celebrate its twenty-fifth year. I will simply echo what many of us say every year when we convene: This conference is the finest and most beneficial professional education endeavor in which any of us are engaged.