History of the Office
Historically, the duties, responsibilities, number, and even who should assess taxes in Virginia have varied greatly from one era to anotl1er. In 17 c. Virginia tax assessment was initially tl1e responsibility of the Governor and his Privy Council. This method worked well until the growtl1 of the colony forced a change. In 1634 shires or counties were established. The Governor appointed a sheriff for each shire. Among the many duties of tl1e sheriff was tax assessment. Each would prepare lists of titl1ables (i.e., taxable property) based on the information supplied to him by the citizens. This method too, soon proved inadequate, and the responsibility was transferred to the local county court in the mid-1600s. After first appointing special assessors, the court justices themselves assumed the role, with each justice assessing individuals within their respective precincts. In response to the need for additional revenue to finance the Revolution, tl1e Virginia General Assembly made the first attempt to provide for a more permanent metl10d of assessment by creating tl1e position of Commissioner of Tax about 1782. These individuals were to be elected annually by tl1e county court. They were to divide tl1e counties into districts, prepare a list of all taxpayers within each district and appoint assessors to visit each household. Taxpayers were required to, under oath, divulge to the assessor all the taxable property. The assessor noted the property on a list, fixed a value to it, and assessed the appropriate amount of tax. Citizens could appeal the decisions of the assessors directly to the Commissioners.
After some experimenting and procedural variations with the Tax Commissioners, the position of Commissioner of the Revenue was created by an act of the Virginia General Assembly in 1786. In general, the act attempted to make uniform and permanent the process by which taxes were assessed. Early Virginia Commissioners of the Revenue were charged with the responsibility of assessing the county levy both for personal property taxes and land taxes. The Act of 1786 stipulated that Commissioners were to be elected by the court and that only "discreet and reputable persons ' be considered. The Assembly was well aware of the pivotal role of the Commissioner and attempted to make the appointment of Commissioners as incorruptible as possible by stating:
Members of either House of Assembly, persons holding any office in civil government, Naval Officers, practicing Attorneys, or Physicians, Clerks of Courts, Inspectors, Ordinary-Keepers, Sheriff or their Deputies, or the Collector of public taxes shall not be capable of acting or serving as Commissioner.
The Act provided for as many as three Commissioners for each county at the discretion of the Assembly. In the event of multiple Commissioners, the county was to be divided into districts. In 1786, Mathews County had two Commissioners of the Revenue who were appointed by a simple majority vote of the Mathews County Circuit Court. Newly appointed Commissioners in Mathews were required to take the following oath:
I ________ do swear (or solemnly, sincerely and truly declare and affirm) that as Commissioner for _____________ County, I will, to the best of my skill and judgement, diligently and faithfully execute the duties of the said office, according to the directions of the act, entitled An Act to Amend the Act, entitled An Act for Ascertaining Certain Taxes and Duties, and for Establishing a Permanent Revenue,' without favor, affection, or partiality, and that I will do equal right and justice, according to the best of my knowledge in every case in which I shall act as Commissioner: so help me God.~
Commissioners than had to “qualify” for office by posting a bond and suppling two “sureties”, “or guarantors, with the court. And as with the earlier Tax Commissioners, Commissioners of Revenue were empowered enter a person’s home and require to divulge, under oath, all taxable property. This practice was to continue well into the 20th century. If the taxpayer was not home, the Commissioners had, and still have, the power to summon the taxpayer to answer questions relating to tax obligations. The Commissioners were to use a form prescribed by the General Assembly for keeping land tax and personal property books. Each Commissioner was to compile four duplicate copies of this form. Retaining a copy for themselves, they were to send one to the Clerk of the Court to duly recorded, one to the Sheriff so that he may collect the tax, and one to the Commonwealth as evidence of taxes due from the Sherriff.