A Brief History of Property Tax
By Richard Henry Carlson
This paper was initially delivered at the IAAO Conference on Assessment Administration in Boston, Massachusetts,
on September 1, 2004.
Taxation has existed in various forms since civilization Property taxes were used in Egypt, Babylon, Persia, and
began. In days of old the source of wealth was land China and throughout the ancient world. Most people
and its proceeds. Before the existence of a monetary were poor and lived in hovels. The primary focus of early
system, taxes were paid by a percentage of crops raised. property taxation was land and its production value.
Through most of history, the tax assessor and the tax col-
lector were the same person; therefore, “tax collector” Ancient Egypt had a thriving culture that began around
is used interchangeably with “tax assessor” throughout 5,000 B.C. and lasted thousands of years. Taxes were levied
the following paper. Some of the most common forms against the value of grain, cattle, oil, beer and land. Ap-
of taxation over the millennia were poll taxes, tariffs on proximately one in a hundred people were literate; they
goods, and property taxes on the value of land, build- were called scribes. Some of the scribes were tax assessors.
ings, and other personal property. The purpose of this They kept records about who owned title to lands along
paper is to present some of the major moments in the with the size of their ﬁelds. At various times they collected
history of real and personal property taxation. Let’s annual or biannual data by counting cattle and checking the
take a short walk through time to understand what we crop yields. The most common taxpayers were the farmers,
have in common with our ancestor assessors, what we from whom assessors coerced collection. If a taxpayer did
can learn from them, and how developed the current not or was not able to pay, he was brought before courts
property tax system has come to be. that immediately dispensed justice. A typical tax rate was ten
percent of all production. Tax assessors were highly valued
people because of their skills with hieroglyphics and their
ability to collect revenue. Often when a king died, the as-
sessor was the only staff person not killed and buried along
The earliest known tax records, dating from approximately
with the king, so valued was his service. There were tombs
six thousand years B.C., are in the form of clay tablets
and monuments for assessors in Egypt and Syria that rivaled
found in the ancient city-state of Lagash in modern day
those of some kings. In Egypt, the famous Rosetta Stone was
Iraq, just northwest of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers.
actually a tax document granting exemption to priests.
The king used a tax system called bala, which meant “rota-
tion.” The assessors would focus on one area of the city-
state, assessing and taxing one area each month, thereby Be weary of strong drink. It can make you shoot at tax assessors...
breaking down the arduous task into more manageable and miss. ~ Robert Heinlein
components. (This is a lesson that we have used in pres-
ent day Boston by not attempting to focus on all property
in a revaluation year. Instead, we focus great attention on
Tax assessors were also highly valued ofﬁcials in ancient
the valuation of retail and industrial property during one
Greece. Near the Acropolis there is a monument to the
year, following up the next year with apartments or other
honest tax assessor. The Athenian general Aristides (530
sub-sets of property. This allows a thorough review of the
B.C.–468 B.C.) completely reformed the property tax as-
various components of value and ultimately leads to better
sessment system of Athens while serving as treasurer (i.e.,
assessments.) In Lagash taxes were very low, but in a time
assessor). Known as the most competent and impartial
of crisis or war the tax rate was ten percent of all goods,
person who ever held the position in Athens, Aristides
which were primarily composed of food.
acted in the interests of the city above all else. His prestige
was so great that be became known as Aristides the Just.
You can have a Lord, you can have a King, but the man to fear The good and fair tax system established by Aristides fell
is the tax assessor. ~ Anonymous citizen of Lasgash apart during the Peloponnesian War (Sparta vs. Athens,
Fair & Equitable • February 2005 3
431 B.C.–404 B.C.). Athenian citizens When Julius Caesar was preparing for neighbor, he still paid the same in
complained that real and personal the Gaulic campaign, one of his gen- property taxes. Economic incentive
property taxes were too high and de- erals told him there was not enough and maximum use of the land was at
manded that the government lower money to pay for the needed materi- the heart of his taxation policy. The
expenditures. The tax assessment als. Caesar’s response was, “Send out tax rate for wealthy farmers became
system was also perceived as biased the assessors!” Pothinus once asked Ju- one percent of value per year.
and inefﬁcient compared to the ear- lius Caesar, “Is it possible that Caesar,
lier standards set by Aristides. The the conqueror of the world, has time Other Roman emperors were far
Athenian council decided to reduce to occupy himself with such a triﬂe less insightful. Tiberius Caesar cut
property taxes but increased both as our taxes?” Caesar’s response “My back on public improvements and
tariffs and tributes paid by council friend, taxes are the chief business of retained huge portions of tax in his
allies. The tribute from each ally was a conqueror of the world.” treasury. This resulted in a ﬁnancial
calculated according to the value of crisis where money was in short supply.
property that came under each state. Over time there were other emperors
Taxes assessed in Athens and Attica Only little people pay taxes. ~ Leona who implemented disastrous policies
(Athens’s territory) were assessed ac- Helmsley that were largely to blame for the col-
cording to the value and productivity lapse of the empire. Public expendi-
of the land, with the more productive tures increased with more expensive
lands receiving higher assessments. Early Roman administrations had entertainment. Entire months of the
As the Peloponnesian War dragged tax policies with intended outcomes. year became holidays and public wel-
on, the Athenians increased the Prior to Augustus Caesar, the state sold fare systems became very generous.
tribute expected from allies to the the rights to collect taxes to private Over time, fewer people produced
breaking point. The tribute was citizens. These people would make goods and the tax rates began to soar.
doubled and then doubled again. signiﬁcant proﬁts by enforcing Roman Some emperors wanted to reduce the
Ultimately, Athens ran out of money tax law. Today we call such people con- wealthy Senate class and taxed the
and lost the war. sultants. Augustus put an end to the value of their estates so high that the
practice by making Roman assessors property was conﬁscated or the own-
Alexander the Great (356 B.C. – 323 public employees. In the early years ers were driven away or into hiding.
B.C.) conquered the known world. of the Roman Republic, the tax rate The emperors also began to reduce
While he was a military genius, he was just one percent of value (land, the silver content of coins. This practi-
was also an able administrator. As he buildings and all personal property cally destroyed the economy. In fact,
moved through Persia, India, Egypt including plants and animals). The some property owners tried to give
and other parts of his world, he left ad- tax rate climbed during war and themselves up as slaves until it was
ministrators with explicit instructions crisis to three percent. However, as declared illegal to do so by Emperor
on how to implement property taxes. Rome expanded public beneﬁts the Valens (368 A.D.). Eventually the
Speciﬁcally, he was concerned that budget was stretched. Prior to Julius system so completely broke down
there would be revolts in areas that Caesar, over 300,000 people received that there was no longer a monetary
were already conquered. When there food from the state. Caesar thought system and trade went back to barter.
were, he was brutal in stopping them. that many of these people should be Of course with no ability to pay an
Prior to his conquest, the people were working instead of receiving public army, the entire system collapsed and
very heavily taxed, and the collected beneﬁts and therefore cut the number the barbarians invaded Rome. It has
money typically went to the treasury of of recipients of public welfare in half. been noted that many citizens were
the king, not to public improvements. The result was that expenditures went happy to be free of the excessive tax
Alexander’s tack was to substantially down, and with more people plowing burdens and could once again pro-
cut taxes and use half of the raised ﬁelds, the tax revenue increased. duce for themselves.
funds for public improvements (wa-
ter systems, roads, ports, etc.) while Augustus Caesar was greatly con- In Roman times assessors were
keeping the remaining half for his cerned that people were not produc- no longer honored but considered
treasury. Therefore, the people not ing at maximum levels and made evil and low class people who often
only paid fewer taxes while receiving other adjustments to the system. One required military escort. After being
more beneﬁts for their taxes, but they of the more important advances was a criticized by religious leaders for asso-
were also far less likely to revolt against reassessment based on ﬂat land rates. ciating with tax assessors in Jerusalem,
his administrators. He implemented a valuation system Jesus Christ said, “The tax assessors
From roughly 200 B.C. to 300 A.D., based not on what a farmer produced and prostitutes are entering the king-
Romans paid property taxes on the val- but what a farmer could produce. If a dom of God ahead of you.” Christ also
ue of land, buildings, livestock, trees, farmer worked hard and produced said, “Render unto Caesar the things
vines and other personal property. more crops than a less productive that are Caesar’s, and render unto
4 Fair & Equitable • February 2005
God the things that are God’s.” The After abusing his power and rais- hearth cruck house (typical peasant
apostle Matthew was a tax assessor. ing taxes to a conﬁscatory level in housing) received a low assessment
1215, King John was forced to sign compared to some mansions that
Medieval Times the Magna Carta, which limited the had twenty or thirty heated rooms.
king’s power to raise revenue. Taxes This tax was hated and was eventually
from this point on could be collected phased out.
It is the part of the good Shepherd to shear only with the common consent of
his ﬂock, not slay it. ~ Tiberius Caesar his barons. By the sixteenth century,
the king’s own lands and estates were The power of taxing people and their
taxed. In 1689, the English Bill of property is essential to the very existence of
In the 11th century, Lady Godiva rode
Rights endorsed a law that the king government. ~ James Madison
naked on a white horse through the
could not tax without Parliament’s
streets of Coventry, England to protest
the tax assessment on her husband’s
property. He received an abatement. After 1290, personal property taxes In the legend of Robin Hood, the
Although poll taxes were prevalent were implemented with exemptions Sheriff of Nottingham collected taxes.
in England, land taxes had existed for the poorest (i.e., those whose as- The role originated in the tenth cen-
for hundreds of years, and although sessments were less than a shilling). tury when each “shire” had a “reeve.”
the lords and king owned land, most The church was also exempt, as were The shire or sheriff was the most
peasants paid taxes by way of rent each certain items such as a knight’s armor important local government ofﬁcial,
Table. Figures from Boston assessor records from 1691, 1791, 1891 and today.
1691 1791 1891 Today
Population 5,996 18,038 448,477 589,141
Total value 20,000 pounds 538,200 pounds $855.1 million $66.1 billion
Levy 200 pounds 8,000 pounds $10.8 million $1.1 billion
Res. Rate 1 penny per pound $14.86 $12.60 $10.15
or $10 per thousand
year. If the land was especially produc- and a merchant’s capital. The person- and his responsibilities included law
tive, the rental value was higher. In the al property tax rate was one-tenth for enforcement, tax assessing and collec-
tenth, eleventh and twelfth centuries those who resided in cities and one- tion. This position was brought over
an average peasant paid one tenth (a ﬁfteenth for rural residents. These to the colonies.
tithe) of the value of crops to the lord assessments were rough estimates of
who then passed on a percentage to a person’s assets, and underassess- Colonial Period
the king. Peasants were also required ment was the norm. The average tax
In 1620 the Pilgrims landed at Plym-
to give either an additional one-tenth equaled about two shillings per an-
outh Massachusetts and began build-
of their crop to the church or spend num, which was about two days’ wages
ing. After receiving a bundle of arrows
one tenth of their labor working for for a peasant.
wrapped in snakeskin—which was
The personal property tax was dif- interpreted as a threat from local Indi-
After 1066, William the Conqueror ficult to administer because many ans—they decided to build a fort. The
created an early form of land taxation. people attempted to hide and move 102 Pilgrims formed a pact that bound
Town ofﬁcials kept cadastral records personal property. This practice was them to a set of laws, among them
of everyone who owned property. especially common among wealthier the creation of taxes and assessments.
Each parcel was measured, its value taxpayers who had multiple residences People were generally allocated equal
estimated. Each town kept a book and moved assets to avoid taxation. portions of land, but the more produc-
of the assessment of each property tive land was assessed at a higher rate.
and the total amount of property tax From 1662 to 1689, a hearth tax was
due for each person. This book was administered in England and spread In Boston, the Puritans imple-
called the Domesday Book, and the to some continental counties. The tax mented property taxes to pay for the
name lasted for hundreds of years. was an estimate of a building’s value. church and the religious education
Some people in England refer to the Assessors recorded the number and of their children. Regardless of one’s
assessor’s records as the Doomsday size of hearths in each home and religion, it was mandatory that every-
Book even to this day. determined value accordingly. A one- one pay the property tax. Taxes from
Fair & Equitable • February 2005 5
Boston’s towns went directly to the When determining the tax bill for a the tax system was more dependent on
church. This practice lasted for over widow with twelve children, for ex- poll taxes) by state quotas.This system
one hundred years. ample, the council voted to not only did not work well; in fact, states did
exempt her from property taxes but not meet their quotas. As a result the
So who exactly was the assessor at grant her a certain number of shil- Continental Congress spent far more
this time? In Boston up until 1733, the lings quarterly out of the general tax cash than it had; the money was bor-
sheriff was the ex-ofﬁcio tax assessor fund. Conversely, a Mr. Phillips, who rowed and not paid off until 1834.
and collector. Property taxes paid for ran over three light posts while riding
the expenses of the community—a drunk down Tremont St. on a horse
sharp contrast to the English stamp and wagon, was called before the But in this world nothing is certain but
act and tea tax that were designed council and told he would not only death and taxes. ~ Benjamin Franklin
to pay for the cost of security in the be required to pay his property tax bill
New World. but also the cost of repairs.
During the debate for the U.S. con-
The Boston Town Records of 1676 There was a general property tax
stitution, delegates grappled with the
show the name of each taxpayer, the assessing the value of land, buildings,
revenue issue. Advocates pushed for
number of acres of land, the value of animals and all personal property.
a national property tax, but because
houses, the number of cows, swine The assessors had accurate records
of the interest of the large estates of
and sheep, the value of mills and as to ownership, number and types
the southerners, no agreement could
the assessment of personal estate. of animals and all personal property
be reached. The tax clause in the
The assessors kept maps that were including intangible assets. At an early
constitution (the same clause that
numbered. Each number had cor- town meeting, voters directed the
apportions representatives) states
responding narratives listing assets, town council to publish and distrib-
that all direct taxes (as opposed to
value and tax. Detailed and propor- ute a complete list of all taxpayers
indirect taxes like tariffs) should be
tionate maps showed the metes and together with the amount and base
apportioned among the states accord-
bounds of property. Assessors used of their taxes. For years there had
ing to population.Ultimately, the pri-
maps of various scale. By 1822, Boston been rumblings of inequitable assess-
mary sources of federal government
assessing records broke down real and ments, abatement irregularities, and
revenue for the Civil War were tariffs
personal property value along with the residency fraud (i.e., moving assets
and sales of public land.
calculated taxes for each taxpayer. to another town when the assessors
were coming). There were attempts to implement
In Boston, the expenses of local gov- national taxes with quotas appor-
Note in the table that the tax rate
ernment were low. There were watch- tioned among the states by popula-
is lower today, but the assessments
men at night, a multi-tasking sheriff, tion. There were two primary camps
are probably closer to market value.
expenses for common defense, public after the revolution: the Alexander
It has been common throughout his-
infrastructure and education. In fact, Hamilton camp that thought there
tory that property is underassessed
Boston had the ﬁrst public school, should be a larger central government
compared to market value. In the Me-
Boston Latin, established in 1635. The with greater revenue raising capacity
morial History of Boston it is stated that
town council met every year at a public and the Jefferson camp that thought
property is worth approximately ﬁve
hearing and discussed taxes and ex- revenue should be raised locally be-
times its assessed value. The theme of
penses. Citizens’ particular situations cause it more suits a democracy. The
underassessment has repeated itself
were also discussed. The grievances of ﬁrst camp also argued that the country
throughout the history of assessing
people who were held responsible for should push for industrial develop-
municipal expenses beyond the norm ment, while the latter pushed for a
were considered. As for the rest of the northern colo- more agrarian society to foster inde-
nies, similar systems were in place, but pendence and democracy. Hamilton
the Southern colonies had already was the ﬁrst Secretary of the Treasury
The art of taxation consists in so plucking
established that property taxes were of the United States. He was a ﬁnan-
the goose as to get the most feathers with the
not in the interest of the wealthy cial genius for the country, helping
least hissing. ~ Jean Baptiste Colbert
classes who owned large estates and create the foundation of the capitalist
significant personal property.The system that we have here today; how-
An examination of a two hundred south opted for a greater focus on ever, the issue of taxation turned into
year old record of a town council poll taxes. a disaster for him and his party.
meeting in Boston shows that each
property assessment and bill laid out Early United States The Washington and Adams
before the council required calling During the Revolution, the colonies Administrations attempted to imple-
upon certain individuals who may agreed to raise taxes (mostly through ment various national taxes that cre-
have been sick, aged or in poverty. property, except in the south where ated rebellions such as the Whiskey
6 Fair & Equitable • February 2005
Rebellion and the Fries Rebellion. the end, the rebellion was put down Before becoming U.S. President,
In 1797, John Adams was greatly by Federal troops. There were death Abraham Lincoln was a general attor-
concerned that war with France was sentences issued, but they were com- ney, whose responsibilities included
imminent. He required revenue to muted. trying murder cases, preparing estates
pay for a force to resist the French. and wills, and even representing prop-
Congress enacted a national property erty taxpayers in the Illinois courts.
tax apportioned by population. Two Death and taxes may be inevitable, but they Yes, Lincoln was a actually a property
million dollars was to be raised with shouldn’t be related. ~ J. C. Watts, Jr. tax attorney: a tax rep. There were
Pennsylvania’s share at $237,000. The three famous cases that he tried:
tax became known as the window tax
because assessors were to assess real es- Throughout the nineteenth cen- 1. The owner of a ferryboat moved his
tate according to the number and size tury, most state and local governments boat out of its assessing jurisdiction
of windows and doors of each house raised their revenue through the prop- on the lien date. The assessor taxed
in addition to a land tax. The German erty tax, though the south continued the boat at a normal assessment and
settlers of Pennsylvania were outraged extensive use of poll taxes with some Lincoln appealed the case in court,
because it reminded them of the much property taxes. Most state constitutions arguing that the boat was not in the
hated hearth tax in Germany. John required uniformity of taxation. The jurisdiction of the assessor on the
Fries became the leader of the tax administration of taxes came primarily lien date. He won the case.
protesters. Small bands were formed to through the sheriff’s ofﬁce where the
search for federal assessors who were sheriff continued to be law enforcer, 2. Another case was a valuation issue
coming to count and measure windows. tax assessor and collector. One ﬁnds for The Illinois Central Railroad.
These bands intimidated, beat up and that the more rural and further west The railroad was under construc-
ran assessors off to the county line. In you went in the United States, the more tion and approximately half com-
one case three assessors were captured recent the separation of law enforce- plete on the lien date. Lincoln
and brought to Enoch Roberts Tavern ment and ﬁnancial responsibilities. contended that the property was
and held for some time. Their papers Most of the western and rural states assessed as though the work was
were destroyed. The sheriff went with did not separate the role of sheriff completed, but that the assessment
thirteen or fourteen men to the Inn from that of ﬁnancial ofﬁcer until the should have reﬂected its true value
to arrest the responsible parties. He late 1800’s. as half constructed. He won this
captured nineteen men and held them case for the biggest legal fee of his
Wyatt Earp moved to Tombstone life: $5,000.
at the Inn when a party of 400 men
Arizona in the late 1870’s. He was the
came to try to rescue prisoners. John
most famous lawman in the country, 3. He tried another railroad case on
Fries negotiated the release of the as-
but he retired and went to Arizona an exemption issue and won that
sessors’ kidnappers. The sheriff sent
to make his fortune. Once there, he case also.
word to President Adams, who rallied
became engaged in town politics. His
troops to arrest the parties involved.
brother Virgil became chief of police
John Fries was captured and convicted
to help protect the brothers’ ﬁnancial
of various charges including hinder- By the end of the 1900’s, it was widely
interests. Wyatt signed on as deputy
ing assessors in their duties. He was felt that the tax system in the United
sheriff to supplement his income as
sentenced to death. There was much States could not equitably tax the com-
owner of a gambling concession in
consternation regarding his sentence, plicated economy. There were various
a saloon. While it is well known that
and the governor was pressured to reform movements to implement
the shoot-out at the OK corral took
repeal the sentence and release him. sales and income taxes and reduce
place in 1881, few people know that
At the last minute Fries was pardoned reliance on property taxes. Part of
Wyatt ran for the ofﬁce of sheriff. In
due to irregularies at the trial. The tax this reform effort intended to narrow
Tombstone, as elsewhere in the rural
was repealed. personal property taxes especially for
west, the sheriff was both law enforce-
Another early rebellion took place ment ofﬁcer and tax assessor/collec- homeowners and intangible assets.
in Massachusetts resulting from exces- tor, as was Wyatt Earp’s opponent, Presidents Cleveland, McKinley, T.
sive property taxes and court rulings incumbent Sheriff Johnny Behan. Roosevelt, Wilson and others began
on farmers’ debts. Daniel Shays, a Compared to Behan, who might be to push for lower property taxes and
former Revolutionary War captain, led called a cowboy Democrat by modern the implementation of sales and
the armed rebellion. His group took standards, the Earp brothers were income taxes. State by state things
over a courthouse and demanded urbanized Republicans. Due in part changed, and by 1913 the sixteenth
lower property taxes along with more to the ﬁnancial ofﬁcer’s unchecked amendment was passed allowing for
protection for farmers from foreclo- power in Tombstone, Wyatt Earp was direct taxes without apportionment
sure and “sound money” polices. In unable to defeat Behan. and income taxes.
Fair & Equitable • February 2005 7
By the time of the Great Depression, Some of the major tax reforms of • increased state income and sales
people’s incomes began to drop. With the ﬁrst half of the century: taxes for revenue sharing in 1975.
so many unemployed, the property Property taxes still did not decline
tax collection rates dropped. The re- • Narrowly deﬁned personal prop-
erty taxes on citizens and almost and during the same time period, Mas-
sult was ﬁscal reform throughout the sachusetts courts made the following
country. Many states began to imple- complete elimination of intangible
property taxation; decisions:
ment sales taxes and cut property
taxes. This is the period during which • Creation of various exemptions • Springﬁeld mandated 100% valua-
many homestead exemptions were for sick, aged, poor, farms, home- tion in 1961.
created. In 1932 and 1933, sixteen steads; • Sudbury mandated the predecessor
states also implemented property tax • Creation of circuit breakers were of the Department of Revenue to
limitation laws. to limit the percentage of one’s enforce 100% standard in 1974.
income going to property tax; • The classiﬁcation amendment en-
What is the difference between a taxidermist • Creation of property tax limitations abled cities and towns to tax com-
and a tax assessor? A taxidermist takes in a large number of states. mercial, industrial and personal
only your skin. ~ Mark Twain property at a higher rate than resi-
After World War II, the economy dential property to avoid a massive
grew at signiﬁcant rates along with tax shift.
Two other reasons for such major people’s incomes and total property
tax collections. However, property • The Tregor decision cost Boston
reform were the institution of pro-
taxes as a percentage of total revenue tens of millions of dollars in abate-
hibition and the booming 1920’s
began to drop. More notably, as a ments when it lost a disproportion-
economy. Alcohol tax revenues from
source of state revenue, property ate assessing case.
licenses and taxes (formerly a major
source of revenue) declined to noth- taxes were supplanted by sales and Finally on November 4, 1978, Prop-
ing for cities, states, and the federal income taxes. Even at the local level, osition 2½ passed, severely limiting
government. This loss combined with property taxes as a percentage of total the amount and growth of property
added expenses on enforcing the new tax revenue declined as cities began taxes.
law. Personal incomes, meanwhile, adopting sales and income taxes. In The past thirty years have led to ad-
were rising, and property taxes didn’t 1927, property taxes accounted for vances in assessing practices through
seem overwhelmingly burdensome. 97.3% of total local tax revenue; today the use of statistics, cadastral maps,
the total is less than 75%. advances in technology and various
Income taxes, which had stayed low
and affected few people until World reﬁnements of old ideas.
War II, nearly doubled as a percentage The wisdom of man never yet contrived a
of one’s income from 11.6% in 1929 to system of taxation that would operate with
21.1% in 1932. On the local level, prop- perfect equality. ~ Andrew Jackson
erty taxes doubled from 5.4% of people’s Gross inequalities may not be ignored for
income in 1929 to 11.7% in 1932. The the sake of ease of tax collection. ~ Owen
tax delinquency rate rose to over 30%. During the 1970’s, states that had J. Roberts
The rate in some areas, especially rural not implemented property tax limits
communities, was much higher. came under increasing pressure from
In 1933, prohibition ended, greatly referendum votes and court cases. On Since the beginning of civilization
increasing revenue at all govern- June 7, 1978, Proposition 13 passed property taxes have been a major
mental levels. In 1932, the federal in California, limiting the assessment source of revenue for most govern-
government collected no liquor tax to current value plus 2% per year. ments. Oliver Wendell Holmes said
revenue. In 1934, $259 million was When the property sold or was newly “Taxes are what we pay for a civilized
collected, and in 1939, $624 million constructed, the assessment process society.” There have been good taxa-
was collected. The tax rate was 100%. began again with the new sale price. tion policies created by admirable as-
Despite the high tax, prices of alcohol Massachusetts after years of taxpay- sessors like Aristides the Just and
came down signiﬁcantly. ers’ complaints and failed attempts to disastrous ones invented by corrupt
lower property taxes: leaders such as the latter Roman em-
Hundreds of taxpayer groups perors. While modern assessors are
formed across the country to address • implemented state sales tax and mandated to develop more fair and
and demand real tax reform. In 1934, distributed revenue to cities and accurate assessments than most of our
the National Association of Assessing towns in 1967; predecessors, the pressure to have a
Ofﬁcers was created and eventually • implemented a state lottery to dis- fair tax system has always existed. It is
become the International Association tribute revenue to relieve property not enough to have an equitable tax
of Assessing Ofﬁcers. tax pressure in 1971; system; the taxpayers need to under-
8 Fair & Equitable • February 2005
stand that they are paying their fair Centre for Research/ English History, Tax Analysts: Tax Quotes, http://www.
share. The tools at our disposal, com- http://www.roehampton.ac.uk/. taxanalysts.com/www/website.nsf/Web.
bined with advances in methodology Dues and Duties in Ancient Egypt, http:// Tax collectors and prostitutes!, http://
and the lessons of the past have put us nefertiti.iwebland.com/economy/taxa- www.justpeace.org/jubilee-96.htm.
in a more favorable position to make tion.htm.
Tax Collectors and Sinners, http://www.
intelligent decisions. Our everyday de- EH.Net Encyclopedia, http://www. cresourcei.org/tax.html.
cisions have signiﬁcant consequences eh.net/encyclopedia.
Tax History, http://www.uic.edu/depts./
on residential and commercial taxpay-
Hearth Tax, http://www.lynherparishes. lib/documents/resources/tax99/taxhis-
ers. We need to have a balanced view tory.shtml.
that considers our obligations to both
the taxpayers and their jurisdictions. Hendry, http://www.polktaxes.com/gen- Tax Humor, http://www.antion.com/hu-
People make the difference in mak-
ing the system better or worse. Those HGS: Hearth Tax, http://www.horlacher. Tax Quotes – Tax Gaga, http://www.taxga-
people are us. It is up to us to think, org/England.hearth.htm. ga.com/pages/c-taxhaha/dir-quotes.
work hard, be prospective, anticipate html.
History Facts, http://treasurer.maricopa.
problems, and come up with creative gov/history.html. Tax Quotes, http://www.ctj.org/html/
solutions to those problems. The best quotes.htm.
History of the Ofﬁce of Sheriff, http://
means to develop an understand- www.correctionhistory.org/html/chron- Tax Quotes, http://www.quotegarden.
ing of improvements in assessing is icl/sheriff/. com/taxes.html.
to pursue education. Take classes
John Fries Rebellion, http://www.james- Theodore Ayrault Dodge. Alexander. Da
through the IAAO and other appraisal Capo Press, April 2004.
and assessing groups. Learn from
each other when opportunities such Jokes for the week, http://www.5010geary. Think Tank: “History of Taxes”, http://
as conferences present themselves.
Most importantly, perhaps, learn and Kagan, Donald. The Peloponnesian War.
prioritize the responsibilities within New York: Viking, 2003. Thornton, Mark and Chetley Weise. “The
your own jobs. You may come up with Great Depression Tax Revolts Revisited.”
Lagash, http://www.nationmaster.com/ Journal of Libertarian Studies. Vol 15 no. 3,
answers to complicated issues if you encyclopedia/Lagash. pp. 95-105, 2001.
try. Strive to become the modern day
Land Use in Central Boston, Boston Public Town of Boston Council Meeting Minutes.
Aristides. ■ Library cat. no. F73.3, .F5. 1691, 1791.
LCSO History, http://www.co.linn.or.us/ U.S. Treasury, http://www.ustreas.gov/
No government can exist without taxation. sheriff/. education/fact-sheets/taxes/ustax.html.
This money must necessarily be levied on Lifestyle of Medieval Peasants, http://
the people; and the grand art consists of www.historlearningsite.co.uk.
levying so as not to oppress. ~ Frederick Richard Henry Carlson has been the Di-
Medieval English urban history, http://
the Great www.trytel.com/~tristan/towns/glossary. rector of Valuation for the City of Boston
html. Assessing Department for eleven years,
helping to develop the most accurate real es-
References Memorial History of Boston, The, 1630-1880,
Vol.3, Ed. Justin Winsor, Boston, 1882.
tate assessments in the city’s history as mea-
Adams, Charles. Those Dirty Rotten Taxes. sured by descriptive statistics and the lowest
New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, MSN Encarta – Taxation, http://Encarta. number of taxpayer complaints in twenty
1998. msn.com/ years. Richard has formulated multiple
Antique View of the Towne of Boston, Boston Report of the Record Commissioners, Contain- linear regression equations for valuation of
Public Library cat. no. F73.37, S7, 1882. ing Miscellaneous Papers, A. Boston, MA: residential properties and has implemented
Aristides the Just, http://www.e-classics. Rockwell and Churchill, City Printers, new valuation techniques including the
com/aristides.htm. 1886. use of geographic information systems.
Shays’ Rebellion, hrrp://www.shaysnet. He has worked to resolve thousands of
BCSO History, http://www.bcso.net/ appeals at the Massachusetts Appellate
Tax Board and has been actively involved
Bible Study – Taxes, http://www.keyway. Sheriff History, http://www.kentoncounty. in the development and implementation
ca/htm2002/20020623.htm. org/ of tax policy as well as the valuation of
Brownlee, Elliot. Federal Taxation in Ameri- SJSO History, http://www.co.st-johns. all commercial, industrial and personal
ca. Cambridge, MA: Wilson, 2004. ﬂ.us/Const-Ofﬁcers/. property assessments in Boston. A member
Subsidies and other taxes, http://www.me-
of both IAAO and MAAO, Richard has a
Burke County Sheriff’s Ofﬁce, http://
www.burkesheriff.org. dievalgenealogy.org.uk/guide/tax.shml. Bachelor of Arts Degree from the University
of Massachusetts at Boston with majors in
Caesar, Julius. The Gallic Wars. Oxford Taka Reforms, http://inin.essortment. Political Science and Economics.
World’s Classics, 1996 com/taikareforms_rrtu.htm.
Fair & Equitable • February 2005 9
A Man of Many Hats: Richard Henry Carlson
Using my knowledge of history sheriff, given that he was also a tax as-
One of the highlights of this year’s and my eighteen years of experience sessor. As my chronological presenta-
Annual IAAO Conference on As- in Boston’s Assessing Department to tion continued, I changed hats, wear-
sessment Administration was Rich- compliment my research, I detailed ing a Roman emperor’s laurel, then a
ard Henry Carlson’s animated pre- the impact of property taxes over the proud pilgrim’s hat followed by a co-
sentation on the History of Property course of history, from the system lonial tricorn hat and a 1930s fedora.
Tax. Richard recalls the event and of high property taxation under the Hopefully, the costume changes not
describes how he came to be an as- later Roman emperors through the only informed but entertained in a
sessor of so many hats. failed attempts at implement- pointed fashion. I thoroughly enjoyed
ing a national property tax presenting the paper and
The IAAO Conference after our Revolutionary War. was most
in Boston last year Not only did I stress how grateful
provided me with much has changed since for the
the unique then, but I illustrated keen
opportunity how many similar policy atten-
to present a issues have populated tivness
history of prop- of my
erty taxes to fellow fellow
Having long been sors.
a student of Ancient, Euro- A very special thanks
pean, and American History, I have to Commissioner Rakow
conducted extensive research on and the IAAO Education
property taxes in Boston, and have Committee for allowing
sifted through old tax records from me to share my passion and
the 17th through the 20th knowledge of the history of
centuries. In the pro- property taxes. I hope my
cess, I’ve become presentation enlightened
familiar with all to the historical record
the proceed- as well as the value of
ings of colo- our assess-
nial town ing tasks
meetings the historical landscape for thousands
and have of years, considering both macro and
assembled micro policy issues—those of the state
tax rates, values and and nation and those of the average
levies from 1691, 1791, taxpayer.
is of great
1891, analyzing them and comparing With a ﬂair for the dramatic, I dis- value.
them to those of 1991. coursed and dressed as a 19th century
Photos: courtesy of Richard Henry
Above: Richard and some of his
many hats: a Roman laurel, a
16th century Pilgrim hat, an 18th
century tricorn hat, and a 19th
century sheriff hat.
Left and Right: Some of the 17th
Century assessors’ maps Richard
studied in preparing his presen-
10 Fair & Equitable • February 2005